The Great Book Sort, Part 5—rape

September 16, 2022 at 5:15 pm (book reviews)

Way too many hack writers use rape as either backstory, drama, or peril for female characters (and all the more so if it provides handy motivation for the male character—double ugh).

Way too many actually-pretty-good writers use rape too.

And so do some brilliant writers.

It’s an instant red flag for me as a reader. I relate hard to my fictional characters and if they get traumatised there’s a strong risk that I will also be traumatised. I wish all books came with content warnings, like movies and TV, so at least I had a choice about whether I was about to be tricked into imagining being sexually assaulted! Those who claim it’s important for “historical accuracy” (oddly enough, especially in fantasy worlds) are welcome to it. But it’s definitely not for me.

I’ve written at least one character who was raped, and now that I’m older I do regret it.

Any child who is a good reader will read a rape scene far too young.

But sometimes a story with rape in it is worth it, even for me.


Pamela Freeman’s “Deep Waters” trilogy (+ 1) series has plenty of rape, some of it ‘on-screen’ (always more traumatic to read) and I have to brace myself before reading it. But the series is so incredibly good that it’s worth it.

As I sort my kindle books, I’ve re-discovered another amazing Aussie author, Glenda Larke. She has several trilogies, and the Isles of Glory trilogy was the first one I read this time around. There is a LOT of rape, and torture (explicitly described), and even a post-rape baby that is genuinely evil (which I imagine is extremely triggering for some people). But this series still made the ‘Favourites’ pile, in part because it’s female-led and the women basically treat rape and torture in the same way—it really really sucks, and is frightening, but it doesn’t change anything about who you are. If your friends are in danger and you know you’ll get raped if you help them—well, you’re gonna choose to get raped.

I definitely still brace myself before reading anything by Larke—partly for all the violence, and partly because I get so badly drawn in that I’m not 100% in real life until the trilogy is finished.

I’ve also read her “Mirage Makers” trilogy very recently, and it was just as compelling without nearly as much rape (but rape was still very much a thing—in this case, lots and lots of rape of male child slaves before the stories began—fortunately I’m pretty sure it was all ‘off-screen’ and without detail).


Juliet Marillier is famous enough that I don’t need to remember how to spell her name. If I search for anything similar, her actual name will come up. She also has quite a lot of books, and I’ve bought a solid chunk of them.

This is the one that traumatised me as a child, and then again as an adult. It’s definitely not the most awful rape scene ever, but there are several elements that make it extra difficult, the main one being that you’re in the moment with the heroine.

Now, all her books are really good! The ‘tiny pale-skinned heroine with magic and enormous hulking brothers and/or love interest/s’ gets a little tiring after a while. I could definitely handle reading these books again…. but I have other books that are just as good that don’t require me to go through that experience again. Plenty of her other books also have rape or attempted rape, but I think this is the one with the most detail.


“The Book of the Unnamed Midwife” by Meg Elison is a good book, but I never want to go into that world again. There’s been an apocalypse that wiped out most women and children, and made childbirth deadly. The heroine basically finds women who have been claimed by a gang of men (that is, they are prisoners who get raped a bunch by all of them), and gives them contraceptives so at least they don’t get pregnant.

It’s a profound angle on post-apocalyptic literature (memo to self: in the apocalypse, make sure to loot the contraceptives as a lot of people will really need them) and is well-written and well-developed. Not surprisingly, there’s lots of sex and violence. Although the book is definitely not devoid of hope, it’s way too dark for me.

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The Great Book Sort, Part 4

August 28, 2022 at 12:09 pm (book reviews)

This coming Saturday, the Castle of Kindness Refugee Sponsorship Group has our big annual fundraiser, an Open Garden event at 67 Vagabond Cr McKellar (Canberra), on Saturday September 3rd from 10am-4pm featuring stalls, food, music, contests, plants to buy, and so much more.

So I’m going to try and keep this entry brief.


T. Kingfisher (who writes as Ursula K Vernon when she’s writing for kids) is a gift to this world. She has strong inclinations towards writing horror, but she writes with such incredible warmth that devouring her books is worth my newfound fear of the sound tock… tock…. TOCK (from her book “The Twisted Ones”).

Here’s a quick screenshot from “Summer in Orcas”, which is probably the least scary of all her books.

This author is just amazing, with a wide range of styles. I’m so glad she exists.


Tamsyn Muir, “Gideon the Ninth” etc.

A lot of people, including my partner, really really love this book. It’s well-written, fascinating, and unique. Probably a bit too dark and/or nihilistic for me.


Ursula Vernon, “Black Dogs”

I just really, really didn’t like it. I found it childish. Which seems like an odd insult to a children’s book, but I write children’s books myself that are highly enjoyable for adults to read. So here we are. Even the glorious Kingfisher doesn’t always write what I like. And in fact, “Summer in Orcas” reads like that kind of stunning, ageless fantasy to me. It even has a child protagonist.

But what do I know?

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The Great Book Sort, Part 3 (Robin McKinley)

August 1, 2022 at 12:04 am (book reviews)

Before I start, let us remember that authors are only human and never ever deserve the abuse that any famous person inevitably receives. This is a (mostly) negative review, and a warning to readers—it is not an invitation to harangue an elderly woman who happens to be particularly gifted with the written word and somewhat less gifted (in my opinion) at sticking to incomplete ideas and letting go of complete ideas.

Yes, I am attempting humour. Hopefully some people will like it.

I hereby declare a blood feud against Robin McKinley. She conceals great evil in her apparent innocence.

Observe the face of true evil! Note how she has clearly cut up two innocent dogs and laid one head and one body on her lap, never to be united.

(Photo from wikipedia.)

Twenty or so years ago, I read “The Blue Sword” and was enchanted. There was something about her lyrical style that grabbed me, and the moment in which the heroine is talking to someone who loves the desert like she does (passionately, irrationally) has stuck with me all this time.

The sequel wasn’t nearly as good. It felt a lot more generic (chosen one, prophecy, magical items, battle) and therefore less interesting. The main character who was interesting in the first book was effectively a different person.

But I read one of her other books, way back then, that I didn’t remember so clearly. I read it again, recently, and remembered as I read that I’d read it before, but couldn’t remember how it ended. Was it beautiful? Tragic? Mediocre?

So much worse, my friends. So. Much. Worse.

That book was “Pegasus”, a story about human-Pegasus relationships across a seemingly insurmountable cultural divide. Of course I loved it! Cultures reaching out to one another is my jam! But as I re-read it, long stretches of the book were incredibly dull. Conversations between characters that stopped the plot moving, and lots of political machinations that weren’t magical or fun at all. I kept going, telling myself to trust this author who sometimes had such a profound effect upon me.

Then I finished the book, which ends very abruptly. Or rather, it doesn’t end at all. Not even a cliffhanger, or a tragedy, or something badly written. It truly ruly doesn’t end. (Apparently it’s NOT “a book” put part one of a three-part “book”.) As I searched for the second part, not sure if I wanted to wade through more of this drab tale but hoping I could at least get a summary…. I found a deep well of rage, betrayal, and tragedy.

There is no sequel (or “Part 2” if you prefer). It’s been over a decade and there’s NO SEQUEL!?!??! To a book with one of the most frustrating non-endings of all time?

It’s not just me. You can read some of the chorus of rage on the Goodreads page for the second book, which has been live for over ten years and giving people false hope all that time.

And I have suffered more than all of them, because I journeyed through the boredom, frustration, and ultimate fury of reading “Pegasus” not once but twice.

*inarticulate screaming*

Whatever you do, DO NOT read this book! It is, quite literally, not finished.


But there’s more, even more damning horrors to lay at the feet of this best-selling villain.

Notice anything, my precious? Sorta similar covers, aren’t they? Both somewhat suggestive of “Beauty and the Beast”, yes?

Oh yes.

Not only are they both based on “Beauty and the Beast”, they are extremely similar. If anyone else had written the second, they would definitely lose millions in a plagiarism lawsuit.

Three daughters, and an elderly father. Poverty. Travel. Small town. Becoming better people through hardship. Dad lost in woods; mysterious castle; takes a rose for the daughter named “Beauty” and then the Beast gets angry and orders him to send his daughter to the castle; the daughter comes; the beast isn’t nearly as horrible as he looks; Beast lets her go due to family crisis and nearly dies as a result, which causes Beauty to declare her love; they marry and live happily ever after.

Many many scenes are almost identical: The Beast refusing to eat with Beauty because he can’t do it gracefully; the castle constantly changing shape and colour and size (I really hated that in both versions—it was mystical and lyrical, but also somewhat pointless and annoying); Beauty seeing visions of her sisters, etc. Even the sudden appearance of butterflies in the otherwise lifeless castle being an early portent of returning life.

For me, there are two main differences between the stories. In the first, the name “Beauty” is a sarcastic nickname for an ugly girl (which I liked, except the castle then made her prettier). In the second, the Beast does not transform back into a human at the end, which is cool in some ways and super weird in others.

It reads VERY much as if it has been written from the exact same notes as the first book. Not just the same inspiration. Very much the same scene by scene outline. In the author’s afterword, she says how disappointed she was to have written “Beauty” before she had spent a significant amount of time growing roses. An increase in horticultural knowledge has not improved the story; not one bit.

It is terribly annoying to read the exact same story by the same author, and to pay for both of them. It feels like reading two drafts of the same book, as if the author is lurking over my shoulder saying, “Should I write the scene this way or that way?” I didn’t sign up to be an editor.

But I am now going to express my rage in the most heinous manner possible—and it is all the more heinous because I am about to say something true, and one never knows what an author, even a nearly-70-year-old bestselling author, might somehow read:

Brace yourselves.

The second “Beauty and the Beast” book she wrote, with an extra ten years of writing experience (and gardening experience) under her belt….

is not as good.

Pow. The burning brand of true hatred falls without mercy.

The character development of the family is much weaker in the second book. It rushes through the change from ‘spoiled rich people’ to ‘good-hearted and loving country folk’, making it feel unrealistic (and calling attention to the fact that being poor and anxious is not usually a catalyst for becoming a better person). It also has a whole complicated magical backstory that serves only to confuse matters, spending several pages telling different versions of a story (which just feels repetitive, and slows down the actual story), and well as making a huge deal out of “three sisters living in Rose Cottage” with no payoff whatsoever (there’s a prophecy saying that when three sisters live in Rose Cottage, walls and towers will fall—but the sisters live there for many years with no issues… and there are no walls and towers in the book whatsoever).

I mean sure, feel free to read both. Compare and contrast, if you like. Make up your own mind. But just know that they are absolutely the same story (acknowledged by the author).

So yeah, “Rose Daughter” and “Pegasus” are going straight into the “Nope” pile, so I never sully my mind with their contents again.

Take that, McKinley.

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The Great Book Sort (Part 2)

July 27, 2022 at 10:57 pm (book reviews) (, )

Since one of my three followers is in hospital and needs more book recs, here’s…. some more book recs!


“Clean Sweep” (and “Sweet in Peace”, “One Fell Sweep”, “Sweep of the Blade”, “Sweep with Me” and I haven’t read “Sweep of the Heart” yet) by Ilona Andrews (aka the Innkeeper series). Now here’s the interesting part: they’re not all THAT well written. They read like many many many mid-level paranormal romance authors (and, to be fair, a million billion times better than MANY error-riddled published books, especially self-published books). The plot is only more important than the inevitable love triangle (good), and the writing is fine and fundamentally flawless but not astonishing. I’ve read other books by the author and they went to the “Nah” pile—perfectly good books, which I might re-read if I run out of favourites. So why is this series a favourite? The heroine is an Innkeeper, with considerable powers… but she’s fundamentally an inter-species diplomat, and most of the books’ tensions come from two or more very different magical species coming into contact in or near her inn. So it’s all about making different cultures feel safe and comfortable and respected… and I LOVE THAT TO BITS.

Side note: The “Temeraire” series by Naomi Novik is absolutely brilliant but I can only re-read the first of the series (it’s all excellently written) because there are so many cases of cultural clashes where people are just awful at understanding each other. It’s too painful to ‘watch’ a second time.

“The City in the Middle of the Night” by Charlie Jane Anders is scifi that takes place on a planet where only a narrow band between the permanent day and permanent night is mild enough for human habitation. According to wikipedia it’s climate fiction, but I don’t see it that way. It is, amazingly (since I’m doing these reviews in alphabetical order by author, which is effectively random), another cross-cultural story.

“The Bear and the Nightingale”, “The Girl in the Tower”, and “The Winter of the Witch” by Katherine Arden (aka the Winternight Trilogy). If you want to know what I mean by “astonishing” writing—as opposed to Ilana Andrew’s “fundamentally flawless” writing—this is it. This is really, really it. The trilogy takes place in Northern Rus’/Russia. You will feel the deadly cold as you read. You will feel the corrosive hatred and unmet hope in the heart of the beautiful priest. You will feel the wild heart of our heroine, and the weight of an entire society that falls, always, on the shoulders of women. CONTENT WARNING: Women are constantly at risk of rape, and are also subject to arranged marriages against their will, which definitely includes spousal rape (the men are also married without always getting a choice over their partner, but they are clearly in a position of muuuuch more power than any woman). I am not against arranged marriage on the whole. There are several examples of happy arranged marriages in the book (and in real life). But there is at least one arranged marriage in this series that is incredibly awful, and a better man would have made different choices (yes, even in that historical setting—although there is room for interpretation on that score). The sexual violence is never explicitly described, and it is never used to break the spirit of a female character or to justify someone’s evil with a rape backstory. There are much more creative ways to break a person. . .

This series is magical, and it is unbelievably harsh, and it is exhilarating and tragic and more.

You, too, will weep for a nightingale.

Since I’ve already talked about the brilliant Naomi Novik AND I’ve talked about magical stories set in medieval Russia, I can’t stop there.

“Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik. This is so good you guys. So so good. It is just as good as the Winternight Trilogy, and when I describe them they sound similar, thanks to the rich and bone-chilling selling of a magical medieval Russia. They even both have a female heroine who attracts the interest of an immortal man (for better or worse—but usually much much worse). But although rape is still threatened in this book, it is only a very slight possibility that is quickly and relatively easily fended off. In this story, the heroine is Jewish. So there is a whole other complicated and historical layer. And almost everyone in the story becomes a better person, which I love. That reminds me: another thing this book has in common with the Winternight trilogy is a protagonist who is incredibly honorable. Even when someone treats them incredibly badly, they do what is right. Even when they absolutely deserve a break they refuse to leave people to their fate. I love that.

“Uprooted” also by Naomi Novik. Completely different world. You’ve got a medieval-ish valley with a nasty wizard who takes a girl from the village every ten years. It’s always someone a bit extraordinary, so the heroine has grown up knowing that her best friend (who is beautiful, and kind, and clever) will be the girl taken. Except the wizard takes her instead. Content warning: there is an attempted rape (that ends rather badly for the attacker, which amuses me more the more times I read it). Again, it’s brilliantly written, including delving into the complicated feelings of the characters. How would you feel if your mother had long since accepted that you would be taken against your will as a teenager? How would you feel if, after all that, you weren’t chosen after all? And how would you feel if you were the friend of that girl that everyone knew was so, so special (unlike you)? And how would you feel, knowing your best friend would be taken and not being able to do anything to stop it? And how would you feel when you were taken instead?

And that’s only the start. I don’t want to say too much, but this book is amazing.

“A Deadly Education” (and “The Final Graduate” which ends on a major cliffhanger, and “The Golden Enclaves” once it comes out later this year) by Naomi Novik. All of the above brilliance, but absolutely hilarious too. This is a “magical school” story, but the survival rate of this particular educational institution is incredibly low. Our heroine is prophesied to become an evil sorceress. People dislike her instinctively, and she is severely hampered in her magical school by the fact that the school is basically pushing her to destroy the world and everyone in it (because it will automatically feed you the magic you’re best at—which in her case is all the most destructive killer spells). Worse, she just had her life saved by everyone’s favourite hero RIGHT when she had a conveniently impressive monster to kill. It is so funny, and strangely sweet, and exciting, and surprising. Naomi Novik was an impressive author when she wrote “Temeraire”, but she just keeps getting better and I hope she lives forever so I can keep reading her books.

“Sing the Four Quarters” by Tanya Huff. The heroine is a princess who gave up the throne to follow the call of her magical gifts. Then she did the one thing that an abdicated princess must never, never do: she got pregnant. What is worse, the man she slept with is currently in a dungeon accused of treason. He’s mostly a pretty face to her (she has a healthy and open long-term relationship with another woman, which is beautifully realised) but he’s no traitor.

Nah (aka good books that I might re-read someday, but just not really my thing)

“Fifth Quarter”, “No Quarter” and “The Quartered Sea” by Tanya Huff. Interestingly, the first book in the series is “Sing the Four Quarters” and I love it, and it’s right above this entry in my favourites pile. But in Book 2 we get a pair of new characters: siblings, and an incestuous love that continues to play a part in the rest of the series. They’re still really good books, but I strongly dislike both of the sibling characters and don’t want to spend time with them.

“Over the Woodward Wall” by A. Deborah Baker (aka Seanan Macguire, who will show up on the “Favourites” pile soon enough). This is well written (Macguire is a master writer) and pretty good, but aimed at a younger audience. I just found the two child protagonists mildly annoying.

“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig. The midnight library is a place where you can go between life and death, and play out alternate possibilities. Sort of cool, but I want sentient books and mysteriously well-read monsters in my library setting, not a story about regret and life choices.


“The Dragon Lady” by Angelique S. Anderson. Magical steampunk, including dragons. Too many adjectives.

“Red Queen” by Victoria Aveyard. I don’t remember much about the book (apparently a bestseller), but there’s a lot of clumsy exposition in the first two pages.

“The Tangled Lands” by Paolo Bacigalupi (who had a book in the “Nah” section of Part 1) and Tobias S. Buckell. Really well written but too dark for me.

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The Great Book Sort (Part 1)

July 26, 2022 at 12:18 am (Advanced/Publication, All Steampunk Fiction, book reviews)

I’ve been reading mainly ebooks for many years, and now have over 700. I only recently realised I could and should sort them. The main categories I am now using are “Favourites” (happy to re-read frequently for the rest of my life), “Nah” (books that are good, but I dislike them for one reason or another—but if I get desperate I could still potentially re-read them). I also have categories for research (mainly non-fiction), and for “People I’ve Met” (mainly so I can quickly glance at them when I’m on a panel with someone, to remind myself of their books—but also so that if I hate a book by a friend, I can put it there rather than in the “Nope” section).

Here are some samples from the main three.

Favourites (currently 249)

“Notes From A Small Island” by Bill Bryson. It’s very rare for non-fiction to be so entertaining that it’s worth a regular re-read, but Bryson’s travel books are brilliant (and hazardous, because if I try to read one before I go to sleep I laugh so much I end up feeling more awake than when I started). Other than his travel books, I also love “At Home”, his book about his house and by extension the history of the home in the Western World. Highly recommended for historical authors, even though I don’t own a digital copy. His book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” isn’t nearly as fun (although definitely more fun than a textbook).

“Minimum Wage Magic” by Rachel Aaron. An incredibly relatable heroine fighting seemingly impossible odds to make rent. I like it. Haven’t bought the next book in the series, but I think that has more to do with cashflow than anything else. Or possibly because it wasn’t quite good enough to make me want to keep going and risk the quality falling in the sequel.

“Mr Malcolm’s List” by Suzanne Allain. Delightful and witty Austen-esque romance. I’ve been recommending it for years and now it’s getting made into a movie.

Nah (currently 89)

“Nice Dragons Finish Last” and “One Good Dragon Deserves Another” by…. Rachel Aaron. It’s rare for a writer to fall into two categories, but clearly these books were “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”. Maybe I won’t buy the second “Minimum Wage Magic” book after all. Sometimes it’s nice to take your reasonably-happy ending and pretend nothing of interest ever happened to the character again.

“Children of Blood and Bone” and “Children of Virtue and Vengeance” by Tomi Adeyemi. Really well written, but just a few shades too dark for my readerly palate.

“The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi

Really well written; very violent. It’s science fiction (my preferred reading genre is ‘YA fantasy that doesn’t go on and on excessively about how hot the romantic interest/s are’) and climate fiction, set in a very dry USA.

Nope (currently 116)

“The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. This was recommended to me by a friend, and I can definitely see why. It is heart-rending and has a lot of kindness in it, and a very interesting exploration of faith. But some really bad stuff happens—too dark for me to stomach. TW: rape.

Almost all stories with rape in them (including flashbacks, spousal rape, or statutory rape) will go in the “Nope” pile for me. This book definitely earned its rape scene, but even so…. way too many writers think, “What shall I put in this female character’s backstory?” and go straight to sexual violence. I’ve done it myself (once, out of hundreds of stories). As someone with a vivid imagination and strong empathy, it is often traumatising for me to read. I am extremely fond of trigger warnings for this reason, and wish all books with sexual violence had them.

“The Wandering Inn” by Pirateaba. Great cover, terrible writing. I never read past the opening few pages. (If you think publishers are harsh for rejecting books based on a few pages, you should try giving a book to actual readers. We’re not here to find your diamond in the rough. We want diamonds from page one, sentence one.)

“Brilliant Devices”, “Her Own Devices”, “Lady of Devices”, and “Magnificent Devices” by Shelley Adina. This is light-hearted steampunk, and I obviously liked it enough to buy all four books the first time around. But the second time around the author’s admiration for the heroine was too grating, and the way she won over a bunch of streetkids struck me as both unrealistic and patronising. And yes, I know books aren’t meant to be exactly like real life, but the mix of dark problems and comical solutions bugged me so much I don’t want to go back.

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Halfway. Ish.

February 16, 2011 at 2:22 pm (book reviews, Writing Ranting)

Not long ago, I wrote that I was planning to write a steampunk novel, but I wasn’t letting myself just dive straight in. Not this time.

First I had to:

1. Read at least twenty relevant history/technology books.

2. Write all my twittertales for 2011.

3. Write all my monthly short-short stories (there’s an email list – and yes, you can get on it) for 2011.

4. Take a break between the reading and the writing, so I don’t get overly excited and start lecturing readers on historical dates and/or how to build a steam engine (don’t you hate it when writers show off how much research they’ve done?)

About five seconds ago, I finished #3 with a murder mystery. Yay!!

#2 is one-quarter done, but I can do plenty more during #4.

I’m halfway through # 1.

These are the books I’ve read so far:

“Australian Bushrangers” by Bill Wannan – which also has a short but very useful section on guns.

“History’s Worst Inventions” by Eric Chaline

“Savage or Civilised” by Penny Russell

“Australian Lives” by Michael Bosworth -more on the 1900s than the 1800s, but still very good detail.

“Oxford Illustrated Dictionary of Australian History” by Jan Basset

“Black Kettle and Full Moon” by Geoffrey Blainey – again, focused on the everyday details that are so important for writing.

“A History of Victoria” by Geoffrey Blainey – good, but not as good as the above.

“The Most Powerful Idea in the World” by William Rosen – good, but the most useful bits were above my head.

“Commonwealth of Thieves: The Sydney Experiment” by Thomas Keneally – heartbreaking and enthralling reading.

“The Aeronauts” by Time/Life Books – SO much fun.

I’m also reading all the modern steampunk I can find that I haven’t already read, and I plan to read some 1800s fiction (which I have ready to go), but right now my non-fiction to-read pile is ridiculously big. So I’m going to stop procratinating and go start on “Technology in Australia 1788-1988”.

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Vested Interests

February 5, 2011 at 8:43 am (book reviews)

I’m still madly reading history books. If you’re a writer researching a period of Australian history (including the little that’s known about Aboriginal lives before 1788), you need to read Geoffrey Blainey’s “Black Kettle and Full Moon” (I’m also trying to find “Triumph of the Nomads”, which is just about Aborigines) and “Australian Lives” by Michael Bosworth. Both of these books focus on all the small, daily details that writers need most.

So here’s a wonderful section from “Australian Lives” (as World War 2 caused rationing of clothes):

The ‘Victory’ suit was cut to reduce the amount of fabric used – lapels were smaller, cuffs were discarded, buttons were reduced to a minimum, but worst of all, the government decreed that men could live and work without a waistcoat. This caused a tremendous outcry, which was so loud and so persistent, that eventully the government gave in and allowed the wearing of waistcoats to continue.

This random photo brought to you by the holiday CJ and I have just returned from. All the details and many pretty photos (including horseriding!) are happening for the next week or so at

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Viktor Frankl, Garth Nix, and Yours Truly

December 17, 2010 at 9:28 am (book reviews, Mental illness)

Here’s a quote from Don Miller talking about Viktor Frankl: “Tested in the concentration camps, Frankl realized no amount of torture could keep a person from living a fulfilling life, if only they had three elements working for them: a project in which they could contribute, a person to love, and a worthy explanation for their suffering.”

Living a meaningful life is far more important to me than anything else. The year I finally gave up my twelve-year plan to go to Indonesia as a full-time aid worker was also the year my chocolate habit suddenly went from a cute foible to something that controlled my life. I’d never been out of the healthy weight range before then, and I’ve never stopped struggling with my weight since.

I am as certain as it’s possible to be that God doesn’t want me in Indonesia – I’d feel like Jonah disobeying God if I went there now (and I hear that didn’t work out). The other two main reasons for giving up Indonesia were that I love my writing more (when I’m in Indonesia I find I write non-fiction, which isn’t what I most love), and it was pretty clear that the main reason I wanted to go to Indonesia in the first place was to suffer.

One sure-fire way to feel special and close to God is by sacrificing a lot in a great cause. But throwing myself into increasingly painful situations in order to feel okay about myself isn’t the right way to go about it.

But I gotta tell you, switching destinies from, “Helping poor third-world children” to “sitting in my room typing up books that no-one reads” is crushing. Every day.

Writing books sort of counts as a “project in which I can contribute” except that I’m not contributing anything of worth – in my opinion.

 If I suffer, it’s because I’m doing a whole lot of work that no-one cares about (which is where publishing comes in – and it’ll probably happen eventually, which’ll mean, since I definitely have someone to love, that I’ll be scoring at least 2 out of 3).

This interpretation of the meaningful life at least justifies how much lack of publication hurts. Writing meaningless books that are paid for (and read by the public) is obviously more life-affirming that writing meaningless books that I have to pay someone to read.

Which brings me to Garth Nix. You all know I adore “Sabriel” with a passion verging on that of an internet stalker. I’ve read it about four times this year alone. But in some ways I love “Lirael” and “Abhorsen” (books 2 and 3 in the trilogy, but they’re really one massive story) more.

I admire “Sabriel” because it’s brilliantly written, but my stalker-love stems from the fact that Sabriel is such a hero. She has a great cause, and she sacrifices everything for it. In short, she’s exactly who I’d like to be – and metaphorically, a close match to my Indonesia-travelling self. Too bad my Indonesia-travelling self is dead.

Lirael’s story is much closer to my own. Throughout the 600-word book, she wants one thing: The psychic gift that every single person in her community has. Without that gift, she can’t contribute to her society, and she is still considered a child. At the end of the book, she finds out that she has a different gift – a gift which was (in part) perfectly obvious, but which never seemed important to Lirael. She will never get the destiny she wanted – but she does have another that no-one else in any of the three books possesses.

It’s not a triumphant ending. In some ways, Lirael’s discovery comes as a relief. In other ways, it’s devastating – the final realisation that she will never be what she’s wanted to be all her life. (It parallels a discovery by the other main character, Sameth.)

In the final book, “Abhorsen”, both of the main characters go through all kinds of pain – except one: they know and accept their real destinies. The whole book is infused with a sense of purpose, and reading it (especially after the long pain of “Lirael”) fills me with hope.

Like Lirael, I have a longed-for destiny shut off from me, and another one waiting for me to fully embrace it. I hope that one day I can believe that my second destiny really does matter as much as the first.

In the meantime, stuck as an unpublished writer, I am still a child – dependent on others, and unable to contribute something of worth to the wider society. That’s never going to stop hurting – but one day it’ll stop.

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Richard Harland interview: WORLDSHAKER

June 17, 2009 at 12:30 am (book reviews, interview, speculative fiction, young adult) (, , , , , )

Hello all,

Rowena was kind enough to put me in touch with Richard Harland (who I believe I already described as “fascinating” in the “Worldshaker” review I wrote). This is the unabridged interview.


When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

 When I was about 11, still living in England, my cousin and I wrote down adventure stories involving planes, castles, submarines – basically, the adventures we’d been making up in games played in the junkyard at the back of his house. We copied them and sort of sold them in the school playground – ‘sort of’, because we only got swaps for them (comics, lollies, etc), never hard cash. It was a real buzz when people came up asking for more.

That was when I first thought how great it would be to be a writer. But it took more than 40 years for the dream to come true.

You have recently produced a website full of writing tips. Do you miss teaching?

 I do miss it. When I resigned as a uni lecturer, I always knew I would – the stimulation of bouncing ideas around, the intellectual interaction. Writing can be a very lonely activity. Maybe the writing tips were a harking back to the uni days – not that I ever taught creative writing, only English literature. But I suppose my way of looking at texts was always the way of a writer.

Producing the writing tips – 145 pages, as big as a book – re-activated that analytical side of my mind, I guess. I never thought of it as teaching, though, more as a sort of sharing and personal confession.

You struggled with writer’s block for twenty-five years. What made you keep trying?

 Sheer pig-headedness? I don’t know – I don’t give up on things easily. I always felt I had stories to tell and the imagination to make them real for other people, I was just such a manic perfectionist. The simple instinct was there and never went away – I don’t think I ever had doubts about that. What I had doubts about was my ability to turn what was in my imagination into words. I lost myself every time in a thicket of fiddly revisions and hesitations.


Looking back now, I know I should’ve let other people be perfectionists for me. Instead of taking it all on myself and agonizing internally and getting the guilts like you wouldn’t believe, I should’ve let other people read what I was writing and tell me what was and wasn’t working.

Tell us the background of writing “Worldshaker”. What was the inspiration?

The inspiration was a desire to write a Mervyn Peake/Dickensian novel, sort of urban gothic. I had a dream where I discovered a third Gormenghast-y novel in a library – not the real Titus Alone, but a book that had all the flavour of the first two books. I read it and loved it, but when I woke up, I couldn’t remember a single thing in it. All I had was the flavour, the atmosphere. I wanted to recapture that. When I started planning, it stayed urban gothic, but became more and more steampunky too.

What were the obstacles you needed to overcome?

No particular obstacle, not like my long black period of writer’s block. It was more that I couldn’t see much chance of getting it published. No Australian publisher was bringing out urban gothic or steampunk or Dickensian Victoriana. I had other things to write, so I just let the Worldshaker world of juggernauts slowly accumulate in my mind. The characters too – they evolved and solidified over many years. It was ten years after the planning that I started writing, and another five years before I finished the writing. But that wasn’t writer’s block either – just making the story better and better. I actually enjoyed doing the re-writes, it was exciting to feel the novel improving all the time.

What happened, and what was your reaction when you found out what a large advance you’d get for the overseas sale?

 I was in Brisbane, and I checked my email in a booth in a shopping mall. Urgent message to ring my agent. So I rang on my mobile, hardly able to hear for all the noise – and she let the news out bit by bit. US contract – yippee! Then how much did I think it was for? I guessed – then guessed larger – then guessed larger again. When she finally told me, I gave a whoop that must’ve been heard across the whole shopping mall.

Why do you (usually) prefer writing young adult books?


In my own mind, I’ve never written a YA book – only books that have YA-aged characters in them. I can’t think of writing WORLDSHAKER any differently – well, I suppose I could’ve made the sexual side of Col and Riff’s relation more explicit, but I doubt it would have been an improvement. I made the decision that the book would be YA before I started writing it – and then forgot the decision once I’d started writing.

Fact is, there isn’t much you can’t put in a YA novel these days. The important thing is the age of the main characters – plus a rip-roaring story that younger readers won’t lose interest in. That’s the kind of story I like and always hope to write anyway.

What is your next project?

 The sequel to WORLDSHAKER, called LIBERATOR. Col and Riff are the main characters again, and most of the (surviving) characters from the first book. But it’s a further stage of the revolution we see in WORLDSHAKER, as the fanatics and extremists take control. There are internal threats to the new order, plus an external threat as the Prussian, Russian and Austrian juggernauts converge. From being the favoured child of fortune in the first book, Col now becomes the persecuted victim, a representative of the old regime.

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Young adult fantasy books

June 12, 2009 at 10:08 am (book reviews, speculative fiction, young adult) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I write, therefore I read.

In honour of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Day June 23rd (which I first heard about on, the below is all about books I’ve read lately – in alphabetical order by author. Almost all are brilliant – and the others are successful 😉 I am sticking to people that I think are alive, and as a control I’ve put in C.S. Lewis (Narnia), J.K.Rowlings (Harry Potter), and Stephanie Meyer (Twilight) because most people have a familiarity with one or all of those. No spoilers, except some info (as limited as possible) in ratings warnings.

Australian authors get an asterisk, and members of ROR (a writing group with an abnormal amount of talent, found online at get two.

I will also take requests to review other books – as long as they’re YA fantasy, and available in my library. Make requests at my blog.


City of Bones

City of Ashes

City of Glass

ie the Mortal Instruments series

(Also the infamous Lord of the Rings Secret Diaries – mature content – as Cassandra Claire.)

Free sample: Clary shook her head. “Don’t stop there. I suppose there are also, what, vampires and werewolves and zombies?”

“Of course there are,” Jace informed her. “Although you mostly find zombies farther South, where the voudun priests are.”

“What about mummies? Do they only hang around Egypt?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. No-one believes in mummies.”

“They don’t?”

“Of course not.”

Review: I read the three books in three days – many people have. They are extremely addictive. Funny, with well-drawn characters and an involving story. Mild cliffhangers at the end of books one and two (a plot line is left dangling in the foreground, but the main characters don’t get stabbed in the final paragraph or anything like that). Clare is a master of vivid description.

The second-biggest plot is an extremely angsty love triangle (which some people will find sickening in one or more aspects). It’s written very very well – and the main character does at least try to do the right thing – but angst is still too big a plot line for my liking. On the other hand, every aspect of the relationship/s has a strong bearing on the main plot, and every character is going to stick with me (unfortunately, a lot of the non-love-triangle characters are left relatively undeveloped except for promising hints). The love plotlines really reminded me of what it was like to be a teenager in love but trying to not be selfish or stupid – they are seriously well-written (sooooo much better than a certain Bella). The main character does sometimes make stupid decisions, and although the plotting has been done very well over the three books some of it is a bit transparent (I guessed or figured out several things before the characters did). Other parts are so clever they made me gasp.

Rating: M (seriously scary violence, including an attempted rape by a demon – brief but creepy), adult themes including homosexuality and incest (no sex happens on-screen at any time). Bad things do happen, including death/s of good people.

Recommended for: age 10 and up, including adults.


Artemis Fowl

Six books in the series so far.

Free sample: Nguyen brought the cup trembling to his lips.

“Don’t be alarmed, Mister Xuan,” smiled Artemis. “The weapons will not be used on you.”

Nguyen didn’t seem reassured.

“No,” continued Artemis. “Butler could kill you a hundred different ways without the use of his armoury. Though I’m sure one would be quite sufficient.”

These are smart, interesting books. One reason is that they’re spy books – but definitely fantasy. (Fairies are real, they live mainly underground, and they have really awesome high-tech equipment – including strap-on wings.) Artemis is an interesting character (12-year old genius), and a sympathetic one – as are all the others. He’s meant to be a criminal mastermind (and he is), but he’s a decent kid, too. High adventure – but without compromising on intelligent writing.

Rating: G

Recommendation: 7 and up


The Last Kingdom series

Many other books

This guy knows his historical information, and never ever bores you by shoving in bits of research he’s particularly proud of (as so many do). Great, involving, sensory style; meaningful and exciting plots; well-drawn characters who deserve to be cared about (even when they are, technically, selfish pricks). I read the first book on my honeymoon and had to read the second and third IMMEDIATELY. (Luckily my husband had the same reaction.)

Rating: M to R (realistic violence, sex including unpleasant sex/rape) – depends on the series

Recommended for: 14 (depending on the kid) to adult (entertaining and involving without compromising on depth or intelligence)


Ranger’s Apprentice series

Strangely compelling. Like Horowitz (below), I just don’t consider Flanagan a good author. Yet I keep reading. Flanagan’s books make me feel like I’m getting my buttons pressed, one after the other (including cliffhanger endings). I did eventually stop reading. But he pushes those buttons very well – smallest kid around gets picked for special task; best friends fight (for the first time) over a girl; etc.

Rating: G

Age recommendation: 6 and up



Many other books (various genres and age but he’s fond of young adult steampunk)

Richard Harland is a fascinating individual. This book has been compared to the work of Philip Pullman and Philip Reeve, but Harland brings a satirical wit to the table that is unique. It is very funny.

His world is fully-realised and original, with vivid characters and an interesting story. His diagrams of the juggernaut are a highlight, but the book never gets bogged down in over-complicated details.

Free sample: Gillabeth took Antrobus over to the slides. . . “No flapping, no waving,” she ordered. “You know how Grandmother likes to see you slide.”

Antrobus came sliding down, arms fixed at his sides like a wooden doll. There was no way of telling whether he enjoyed or hated the experience.

“Now again,” said Gillabeth.

Rating: M (gory violence, bad stuff happens to good people)

Recommendation: 8 and up, definitely including adults.



This is the beginning of a long and wildly successful series. (Not actually speculative fiction, sorry – spy genre.) It’s interesting to me that the good guy’s bosses are highly unpleasant and evil people. Horowitz’s style sucks, some plot twists are predictable, and his characters are cardboard cut-outs.

It was terribly fun to read. Terribly, terribly fun. I laughed out loud (with pleasure) at some of the ridiculous scenes. It’s described by the author as “adolescent fantasy” and it’s the best example I’ve read. (I confess I won’t be reading more, despite how enjoyable it was.)

Free sample [Our twelve-year old hero, Alex, is being attacked by two men on quad bikes. He has already managed to dispatch one guy AND steal his quadbike. Now he’s on his way to dispatching the other – who, like the first but unlike Alex, has a gun]: The quads were getting closer and closer, moving faster all the time. The man couldn’t shoot him now, not without losing control. Far below, the waves glittered silver, breaking against the rocks. The edge of the cliff flashed by. The noise of the other quad filled Alex’s ears. The wind rushed into him, hammering at his chest and face. It was like the old-fashioned game of chicken. . .”

Rating: PG (unrealistic violence, including death)

Age recommendation: age 7 to 17


Redwall series

Each book is about heroic animals (badgers, mice, moles) fighting bad animals (weasels, wildcats, etc). The animals do talk – there are no humans – but the battles are absolutely serious, violent, and deadly. This contrasts bizarrely with how incredibly jolly the good guys ALWAYS are with one another. The series quickly gets repetitive (if you liked Martin the Warrior you’ll like Lord Brocktree – they are almost identical, except with the characters from the first book played by their own relatives in the second book). The worst part for me was the world’s most annoying accents – and plenty of them. I enjoyed the fact that the bad guys were actually unpleasant to the extent of often handily killing one another – it’s nice to have a genuine BAD guy every once in a while (plus it adds plausibility to the good guys’ victories).

Free sample: Dotti wiped her lips ruefully on an embroidered napkin. “I bally well wish we could, I’ve never tasted honeyed oatmeal like that in m’life. I say, Rogg, how the dickens d’you make it taste so jolly good, wot?”

Rogg chuckled at Dotti’s momentary lapse from molespeech. “Hurr hurr young miz, oi chops in lot of. . .” [let’s just stop it here, or I’ll bally punch meself, wot wot?”]

Rating: M (violence)

Recommended for: 8 to adult (if you like that sort of thing)


Black Juice

Red Spikes

Tender Morsels

. . . and many others.

I haven’t actually read all of these, because they’re all collections of unrelated short stories. Margo Lanagan is hard to pin down because she writes such a wide variety of work. She is very literary, which in my mind means stunningly beautiful writing, intelligent plots, and deep characters. Her work has such an intense emotional impact that I plan a restful evening AFTER reading it. But when she writes for a younger audience it’s much lighter.

Rating: G to R

Recommended for: 15 to adult (more for adults)


Skulduggery Pleasant

Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire

Skulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones (first cliffhanger-ish end)

The opening line of the whole series is: “Gordon Edgley’s sudden death came as a shock to everyone – not least himself.” This humour/horror series is enormous fun from beginning to end (not that we’ve reached the end yet). There are interesting and complex characters throughout, and their secrets are still being gradually revealed. Very very funny.

Rating: PG/M (horror violence, but not hard-core unless you’ve never read horror before)

Recommended for: age 8 and up, including adults (for fun)


Narnia series (seven books in total)

I love every book in this series. Original world (though it doesn’t feel original any more, because there are so many imitators – and it bears some resemblance to Middle Earth, since Lewis and Tolkien were friends), though some people find it limited (I find it cosy). Interesting, realistic characters (main characters shift throughout). The arc from first book to last book works well despite the fact they were written out of order, and The Horse and his Boy is fascinating to me because it looks at the same world from a completely different angle. Some people have argued that Lewis is sexist or racist because of the way women are treated (particularly in a battle), and people with dark skin are usually evil. I disagree with the racism – the dark-skinned Calormenes are simply an enemy country, with good and bad citizens (but predominantly bad because hey, they’re the enemy). The roles of women do show that Lewis is a man of his time, but it has a chivalric (rather than patronising) feeling that suits the medieval-ish world (eg women shoot arrows rather than fighting in the melee). Great, exciting plots.

Rating: G (with – arguably – religious themes)

Recommended for: age 5 and up, including adults (particularly Christians, who have a whole other level to examine – it should be noted that Lewis did not intend them to be thinly-veiled Bible stories, but an exploration of how Jesus would appear and behave in Lewis’ world. The Jesus-esque character doesn’t ruin the stories, which is the main thing).


Twilight (I only read the first one)

Excellent writing style, good characterisation of the hero (for sympathy – it irks many readers that she has no flaws whatsoever). Almost no plot (other than romance) for hundreds of pages, which annoyed me (there’s about 100 pages of action at the end). The whole basis of the romance seemed to be physical (rather than anything to do with the personality/lack thereof of either party), which also annoyed me.

MUCH angst. Much talking about angst. Probably would have been better at half the length.

Rating: PG (sexual symbolism) to M/MA later in the series (on-screen sex). Mild violence.

Recommended for: emos. (ooh, the claws come out!)

Approximate quote: “Ooh, you’re ever so pretty. It’s so hot that you want to eat me! I’d rather DIE than be single, wouldn’t you? Oh that’s right, you are dead. . . Let’s have babies!”





I love Garth Nix and want to have his babies (by which I mean his books). Sabriel is possibly the best book ever written, and although Lirael and Abhorsen feel like one book split into Part One (with good resolution of the main emotional conflict, but including only the leadup to the main physical conflict – not a true cliffhanger, but not one to be read on its own) and Part Two – they are also extremely good (and don’t skip Lirael just because it’s the middle of a trilogy – you will miss the coolest coming-of-age tale ever).

Rating: M for scary supernatural gore and plenty of death (not limited to naughty people).

Age recommendation: Twelve and up – but if you’re an adult, you should definitely read it. It isn’t dumbed down or irrelevant in any way. Even the romance is mature (not in rating, but in emotional depth and maturity).

Keys to the Kingdom series

If I hadn’t read Sabriel etc, I would have been more impressed. This series is a quest-per-book series, where there’s a magical item to be attained, and every climax involves getting said magical item. This makes it a little dull for my taste. On the other hand, the world is original and interesting, and the characters and their problems are good. There’s also over-arching plot lines that draw you through the series. I don’t really recommend it, though – not for adults (even though I’m drawn in enough to be faithfully reading every book as it comes out). There’s just not enough depth to it – I feel like Nix is pushing buttons of tension rather than drawing us into a new reality where we really care what happens. Oh, and each one ends on a major cliffhanger.

Rating: G

Age recommendation: 8 to 12

The Seventh Tower

Very good – not as good as Sabriel etc, but clearly written by the same person (not in any repetitive way, but in the emotional depth and originality). I’ve only read the first three (of perhaps seven), and I’ve chosen to put it out of my mind until it ends (cliffhangers BUG me).

Rating: PG (possibly M) violence

Age range: 12 to adult. Worth reading as an adult.

As far as I know, only the first three books are out.

**MARIANNE DE PIERRES (who, incidentally, read one of my novel openings in a competition and stopped me at the con to tell me how fabulous I am)

Nylon Angel etc

Gritty futuristic world, shining with imagination. She has a tough main character (this is the beginning of a series) with a serious and interesting problem. I enjoyed it, and would have read on except this was definitely a world where rape was common, and I just can’t handle that.

Rating: M (violence, rape in past and probably future)

Recommended for: 14 and up, including adults.


Northern Lights (Golden Compass in North America)

Subtle Knife

The Amber Spyglass

Free sample: Lyra stopped beside the master’s chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly through the Hall.

“You’re not taking this seriously,” whispered her daemon. “Behave yourself.”

Review: Philip Pullman is a grumpy and egotistical man, an angrily fanatic atheist – and a true master of storytelling. This story sprawls a bit in all the lies and schemes going on, but it sprawls because it’s so magnificent and epic. It wasn’t until book three that I realised Pullman didn’t just hate the church but hated God – that’s when his convictions leaked into the story the most clearly (the book was written as an answer to Milton). But I was still impressed by the originality of what he did with the character of God.

Rating: PG (violence, symbolic sex, religious theme)

Recommendation: age 7 and up, definitely including adults

Ruby in the Smoke

Shadow in the North

The Tiger in the Well

The Tin Princess

There’s not a hint of preachiness in this series. Each book is a truly fun, original adventure tale set in 19th-century England. the Tiger in the Well has a particularly interesting plot (it’s improved if you read the books in order, but you don’t have to).

Rating: PG (sex)

Recommendation: 10 and up, definitely including adults.





(these are illustrated in an intricate steampunk style by David Wyatt)

These are the first books, in my mind, to overtake Narnia as being the best books ever written for children. They are the funniest books on this list. For this quote, I opened the first book at random (because I was that confident): “I returned the locket to my jacket pocket, though privately I felt that Jack and his friends would not have tried to steal it. They were too busy dividing up the mounds of loot which they had stolen from those Martian ships they’d raided. I do not know quite who it was who started the rumour that crime does not pay, but I can assure you they were wrong. It pays very well. . .”

These are tales of high adventure – space pirates feature – in a brilliantly-realised alternate history/future (sort of Victorian times, but in space).

Rating: G

Recommendation: 6 to adult. If you don’t laugh within three pages, you are probably dead.

Mortal Engines

Predator’s Gold

Infernal Devices

A Darkling Plain

Another brilliantly-realised world, but a much darker one. The characterisation is a particular strength – the pain of one of the characters still breaks my heart. There is a LOT of violence, and bad things definitely do happen.

Rating: M (violence)

Age Recommendation: 12 to adult.

Free sample: He remembered dying. He remembered a girl’s scarred face gazing down at him as he lay in wet grass. . . What was her name? His mouth remembered.

“H. . .”

“It’s alive!” said a voice.

“HES. . .”

“Again, please. Quickly.”

“Charging. . .”

“HESTER. . .”

“Stand clear!”

And then another lash of electricity scoured away even those last strands of memory. . .


Harry Potter series

 This is funny and imaginitive, and gets increasingly scary (sometimes to a worrying extent for parents, including possession and mind control of a good character). Has been criticised for being evil due to (a) popularity (b) people who believe all fantasy is evil (c) misinformation spread online, mainly by the Christian community. Characterisation is a bit stereotyped (eg Hermione is the “good/nerd girl” and Ron is the “dorky friend/source’o’humour”), but the biggest fault is that the hero suffers from angst. It IS realistic that a teenage boy orphaned by an evil wizard (and then blamed for everything bad that ever happens) would start whining about it – but no-one wants to actually READ that. (It might have been okay in summary  – “and then Harry walked off with Ron, whining all the way. Then he saw a pretty butterfly and got over himself” – but by the end many fans were hoping Harry would die.)

Rating: PG to M (horror violence, possession) depending on the book.

Recommended for: 10 (depending on the kid) to adult


Edge Chronicles

Seriously cool, wondrous world illustrated in grotesque beauty by Chris Riddell. Everything about this series is great. It does tend to sprawl a bit in terms of overall plot, but only because there are several quite different stories told in the same world (which makes the world 3-D, in my opinion).

Rating: G

Age recommendation: 7 to adult.

Free sample: The spindlebug paused for a moment at the foot of the sweeping staircase and looked up. The skin, as transluscent as the high arched windows above, revealed blood pumping through veins, six hearts beating – and last night’s supper slowly digesting in a see-through belly.


Best book for your kid: Larklight by Philip Reeve (but beware some of his other books)

Best book for your teenager: Sabriel by Garth Nix

Best book for a reluctant reader: Ranger’s Apprentice (John Flanagan) or StormHunter (Anthony Horowitz)

Best short story writer: Margo Lanagan (my favourite is the well-known Singing My Sister Down)

PS thanks to Ben for corrections

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