September 16, 2010 at 10:04 am (speculative fiction, Writing Ranting, young adult)

For those who don’t want to look at the nuts and bolts of writing, here’s a funny and informative look at an acquisitions meeting (I LOVE this blog entry):

Also, here’s a random picture of a bird on a train:

There are some very mild spoilers in the following (spoilers on theme and on the first few chapters only).

I just started reading “Sabriel” by Garth Nix for the second time this week, analysing it like crazy to understand how a master of storytelling weaves his spell. It’s a little odd to be studying “Sabriel” (400 pages for young adults) while editing “The Princess and the Pirate” (40 pages for kids) but some principles do transfer.  

I’ll ignore the prologue in this analysis, having talked about it two days ago. It’s interesting to note, however, that the first paragraph of the prologue isn’t action – it’s setting. It’s a “slow burn” opening, which is the right choice because (a) having used a prologue, the chapter one opening must be involving from the first sentence, which means a “slow burn” opening will no longer be an option, (b) the setting is quite difficult to grasp – two completely distinct lands exist side by side – one magical, and one more like 1920s England. So it needs to be mentioned up front, and re-mentioned several times in the next few chapters. (And of course, that one paragraph of description sets the mood for that scene.) And even though Sabriel is barely born in that scene, she is still the centre of it – she even manages to be an active character.

And on with the first chapters.

The very first paragraph is a truly eerie image of a white pet rabbit, freshly bathed – and freshly killed. The dichotomy of innocence and horror is a constant throughout the book (Sabriel is 18 – literally a schoolgirl). Sabriel raises the rabbit from the dead before its young owner arrives. TV tropes has a section on “pat the dog” – establishing a hero’s goodness by their kindness to an animal. This scene is a fantastically macabre (and frightening) “pat the dog” – with a twist. The twist is that Sabriel’s calling is to make sure the dead (including this rabbit) stay dead – her compassion is a flaw.

This ties in to the main plot, not only because the school (and its innocence) becomes important later, but because Sabriel faces a similar temptation at the climax.

It also makes us love her instantly – that is the primary function of the scene (the character hook is her compassion, plus her own fear of her frighteningly creepy job, plus the unique pain of compassion being a flaw). And it shows us a little more of the mechanics of her job (which are important many times in the book – the realm of Death has its own rules and challenges).

After that there are 3 pages of quite straightforward exposition – by now we care enough to find it all interesting.

Then a literal incursion of horror into a dorm filled with 11-year old girls (girls Sabriel is responsible for). A dead thing enters, and Sabriel runs to fight it (we see she’s brave, but also see her authority over the dead – even the Magistrix of the school clearly sees Sabriel as the most competent person to deal with it). It is a terrifying scene – but that’s not the primary purpose. The primary purpose is to deliver a message from Sabriel’s father (aka Mr Macguffin) – effectively saying a garbled, “Help!” It’s a brilliantly dramatic way to deliver a message, and also shows more about Death that is important later.

And the plot is set: Sabriel must find her father (who may or may not be beyond help). The plot later builds to become, “Sabriel must find her father and save the kingdom” but the emotional heart is exactly the same.

Now that the plot and character are established, chapter two and three are relatively action-free (except for a brief misunderstanding – that, admittedly, could have gotten Sabriel killed if it had gone the wrong way). There’s a lot of setting detail, more info on the stakes (including a 14-day ticking clock for tension), and more on Sabriel (mainly: she  shows humanity as she struggles to carry a load of skis and stocks and backpack, she shows off cheekily to an annoying beaurocrat, and a father figure is deeply concerned for her dangerous voyage, but respects her enough to help her on her way).

Chapters 4-7 are an epic and terrifying journey, with quite a bit of setting detail (journeys are handy for that, particularly since Sabriel hasn’t travelled that path since she was 4), some bad news on the big bad (via a pile of corpses), and a brief moment of joy when Sabriel meets her dead mother’s spirit (which just makes us more sympathetic, since her mother is dead and rarely reachable – even this meeting is cut short). Sabriel kills a dead thing, but flees from another – which shows her competence, while also showing that This Is Serious Now.

And then there’s a period of physical and mental recuperation before she continues on her way – this time, with a Mysterious Companion (who is sort of evil, but also extremely helpful, and a great source of humour throughout the book).

Here’s the way Garth Nix deals with the challenges of opening a novel:

1. Instant hook: The image of the rabbit is compelling.

2. Setting: He describes Sabriel’s school uniform (including her prefect’s badge), and the iron school gate, which says “established in 1652 for Young Ladies of Quality”. That tells us everything we need to know about her boarding school, and thus all necessay setting for the first two scenes. (The dichotomy of this “country” with the magical one 40 miles away is also mentioned – not for the first or last time. Chapter two and three are set entirely in the area between the two locations.)

3. Characterisation: The fast hook is her compassion, magic, and that her compassion is a flaw. We then quickly see her courage and intelligence – reinforced by the way both children and adults come to her for help.

4: Instant action: Within a page, we have a problem (the Bunny’s young owner is fast approaching), and Sabriel goes into the risky world of Death to do something about it.

5: Plot hooks: It’s not until the dorm room scene that we know the main plot.

a. Finding her father, who may or may not be dead.

b. Sabriel needs to get better at her job (keeping the dead dead). Will she turn evil?

c. In chapter two, it becomes clear that more lives are at stake because of her father’s helplessness.

d. After the big action sequence, Sabriel keeps a wary eye on her companion (and soon gets another, who is also mysterious – and has several private conversations with the first). Each companion is utterly vital at the climax, and their secrets are relevant.

6: What characters look like: Since it’s in third person, everything is described in a fairly straightforward manner.

7. How the magic system works: As in “The Princess and the Pirate”, the basics are shown by immediate action, and more is revealed as it becomes relevent (again, through action).

8: Link to prologue: We all know Sabriel is the infant of the prologue – and the plot soon makes it very clear that a character we love (Sabriel’s dad) is in mortal danger. (And, since he’s not the main character, we know he really could die – causing pain to Sabriel, who has suffered enough.)

So that’s how it’s done: Exciting stories within the greater, more exciting story.

I’ll be sending off “The Princess and the Pirate” in the next few days (unless CJ spots a fatal flaw when he reads it tonight). I recently met three people from Publisher D (two of them the most relevant two people I could have hoped for). Publisher J specifically recommended Publisher D, so this is my shining new hope. Sadly, I’m only sending the first three chapters, so I won’t have a final answer for 6-12 months (and that’s assuming they’re prompter than the silent Publisher B).

The main lessons I’ve learnt from Nix this week are:

1. A Mr Macguffin needs a prologue – but your chapter one opening has to be a killer.

2. Some character-establishing exposition is fine, once you’ve earned it.

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat your main plot – all the way through the book (and the other plots/motivations too).

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Tar (Warning: mature unpleasant content)

June 20, 2009 at 4:49 am (Free story, speculative fiction) (, , )

Welcome to another free story. This has been made all pretty by the people at Drollerie Press as a tease for their ebook, Needles and Bones, which features another story “At Sea”, which takes place after this one. This character appears in a LOT of my stories. “Tar” is chronologically her beginning.

 Needles & Bones is now available in the Drollerie Press bookshop (buy page:  description page:


I woke up sticky. My eyes were glued shut, and I smelled that coppery smell. Not again. I remembered the night before, when my rescuer came into my room and smiled, and grabbed at my hair. He licked me on the face and pulled me across the room. I struggled a bit, but I let him throw me down on the bed. That’s where I kept my knife. That’s where I killed him.

Not my first. Not my last, either, the way things are going.

His blood smelled off already, like meat hung on hooks in a drying room. I was tangled up with the sheets on the floor, and my legs ached from kicking his dead body. He was a lot bigger than me, and it took a lot of effort to kick him thoroughly. I pushed the bloody sheets away, and was glad I wasn’t like other girls. Other girls can’t make objects move like I can. A knife, for example, diving into a man’s chest and wriggling around inside.

Time to run away again. Another solo voyage, another deserted beach, and most likely another rescuer. Hopefully a better one.

I rubbed my eyes hard and cracked them open. My mouth tasted rank with blood. I stretched out my sore fingers and chose not to look too long at my rescuer still lying on the bed, frozen with his mouth gaping in stupid surprise. Sleep hadn’t made it better.

I smell awful. I smell of blood.

Tidy up, or you’ll never get away. I went to the door and leant my head against it. My body was sluggish. I wanted to go back to sleep.

‘Shut your face,’ I said to the wood, and it smoothed itself across the lock. No-one would open the door without an axe. That bought me some time. The usual headache came a few moments later, but I ignored it. My stomach rumbled. Wash first, then eat. And don’t wash in the house, or you’ll be seen.

The sea outside my window reached for the shore again and again, but never caught hold of it. I slid out over the sill, banging my elbows, and walked to meet it.

The water caressed my ankles, warm against my tired skin. It would be a hot day. I went deeper, until my feet couldn’t keep hold of the sand. The water filled my ears and nose, and made me clean. I walked back to the house and strode in by the front door, still dripping. My hair fell rough against my shoulders. Good. Pretty ringlets don’t suit me, and shouldn’t belong to me. All they’ve ever done for me is cause trouble.

The kitchen buzzed with sleepy servant girls. I wondered which of them were playthings of the master, and how they’d feel when they found his body. The food smelled off to me, but I ate it anyway; ate til I felt sick. I drank until I thought my stomach would burst. Remember how thirsty you were, when your little boat finally reached the sand. Don’t ever get that weak again.

Still I smelled that coppery smell. No. I definitely washed all the blood off. . . didn’t I? First my father, now my rescuer. What’s wrong with me?

A hand clamped on my shoulder. ‘Oi,’ said the head cook. Her thick face was wrinkled up in concentration. ‘Why are you eating here, instead of at table with the master?’

My mind left me, and I twisted out of her grasp and fled. Every step sloshed in my stomach, and I swallowed hard to keep from losing my precious breakfast. I heard the cook lifting her voice after me, but I didn’t hear the words.

No-one chased me. They don’t see pretty little me as a threat. Not the little ringletted girl who washed up on the master’s beach. I slowed down and looked back. Smoke from the cooking fires leaked from the doorway, dirtying the sky. The air still smelled of blood to me, and my stomach twisted in revulsion. Still I gazed at the kitchen, where I could find everything I needed. With no supplies I’ll die of thirst in days. No-one knows thirst better than me.

I went back, and made myself apologize to the cook. All I need is five minutes alone to grab supplies. ‘He’s in my room.’

Her face softened. She knows what he wanted from me. But she doesn’t know me. Not yet.

She whistled for the butter boy, and he jumped up from his churning stool. ‘Give the girl whatever she needs, Ulandin. She’s had a rough night.’

He nodded his head, and looked at me. I glared back.

His golden eyes widened, and he glanced guiltily at the cook. ‘You need a boat,’ he whispered as she left. ‘Don’t you?’

He knows. But he knows not to tell. Smarter than he looks, then. ‘I have a boat already, remember? Fetch me water, and quickly, and I’ll be gone before she gets back.’

He nodded. ‘I want to come.’

‘What?’ Not so smart.

‘Take me with you. I can keep us moving when you need to sleep. We’ll get farther together.’

He’s no older than I am. I looked at him more carefully. Pale yellow eyes, tight black hair. Good arms – too good. I won’t want to fall asleep near him.

‘Please,’ he said. ‘Take me with you. Kill me later if you have to.’

Now there’s a generous offer! He’s definitely serious, too. I held back a smile. ‘If you so much as look at me like the master did –’

‘I know better.’ He saw me wavering, and relaxed. ‘Master keeps – kept – water in his pleasure boat. It will be enough.’

‘I told you I have a boat.’

‘This one has a sail.’


He grabbed a near-empty flour sack and filled it with fresh bread. I helped. Even the bread smelled of blood to me. Bile rose in my throat, and I forced it down. Ulandin and I ran to the water; him with bread, and me with more water. There can never be enough. Though I suppose if he bothers me I’ll end up with twice as much.

The boat shed was locked – I told the door to move out of my way, and it did. Ulandin ran his fingers through his hair, but he didn’t speak.

A new smell hit me: tar. Thick and rich and sour as blood, but sharper. My stomach curled inside me, which was good. No blood smell. Not with that around.

There was a barrel of it on the jetty, shadowed by the shed. I made Ulandin lift it with me, and put it in the boat with our bread. It was too big for me to carry alone, and I’d need all my magic to shift the boat itself; an unsteady task when it was sitting on the sea. The only other boat was mine; a little toy of a thing. I left it there.

Ulandin was right; there was more water on board than I could have brought if I’d worked all day. Maybe he is smart after all. Maybe he’s just smart enough to live, without being smart enough to die for it. We’ll see.

I heard shouting as we sailed out of the open sea-doors, pushing ourselves away with long oars like poles. By the time the people reached the beach my magic had gotten our vessel past the breakers. The sail clapped against the mast as it gorged on sea air.

My head screamed at me. I collapsed onto the deck and half-closed my eyes to shut out the glaring sun. The smell of blood tore at my mind. It’s in my head. It will never stop.

     Ulandin jumped over me and did something to the sail above my head. He was careful not to touch me. Good boy. I’ll give you a biscuit later.

How can I still smell blood? There’s no death here. Just me.

     I sat up carefully. My arms were black with bruising where the master’s body had pressed against mine. I shuffled over to the barrel of tar. The stink of it shimmered the air. I reached in and buried both my hands in the muck. It was warm already from the sun. I took up handfuls of it and smeared it into my hair, pushing it in hard and sweeping back my black curls. No more girly hair. No more blood smell.

     The tar sunk in and stuck to me; hot against my scalp. I scooped out more and filled my hair with it until my curls vanished into a solid mass. The smell of it overwhelmed me. I almost fainted. But I didn’t.

I stood to my feet, and turned my back to the shore. The ocean stretched out before me, ready to be beaten.

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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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