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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Some more book reviews!

Allen and Unwin has been sending me so much stuff lately that there is a backlog at January Magazine, waiting to be published, so for the time being I'll park some reviews here - enjoy! These are all A&U publications.

H.I.V.E By Mark Walden

This book has been described as ‘Artemis Fowl meets Hogwarts’. I would agree, though I’d add there are also touches of Catherine Jinks’s Evil Genius and the show Little Shop of Horrors. It might further be added that if Hogwarts is in there anywhere, it’s as if someone had written the story from the viewpoint of Draco Malfoy; the hero’s name is Otto Malpense (“bad thought” as opposed to “bad faith”) and he even has white hair like Draco’s. There are also two characters called Block and Tackle who might be Crabbe and Goyle if the latter were Draco’s enemies instead of his henchmen. There’s even a klutzy “Neville Longbottom” character who nearly destroys the school with his “herbology” skills.

Imagine a school full of Artemis Fowls - children of genius who have used their talents to commit crimes. There’s a sweet Scottish girl who had used the local American base’s nuclear early-warning system to listen in to her school enemies discussing her on their cell phones. There’s an American girl, only thirteen, who has already built a promising career as a jewel thief. And there’s the hero, Otto, who succeeded in overthrowing the British Prime Minister via public embarrassment, in order to keep his orphanage open.

These children and others have been swept up and brought to H.I.V.E. (Higher Institute of Villainous Education), a huge school for future world dominators and their henchmen, on an uncharted island. The headmaster, Dr Nero, reports to a mysterious figure known as Number One who is only ever seen in silhouette on screen. The teachers range from a dotty professor to a white cat of the Blofeld’s-pet variety who is actually a woman trapped in an animal’s body by accident by the dotty professor while attempting to give her the cat’s qualities. Well, that’s what he claims, anyway. I think the mind/body exchange will be important in future volumes of this series, of which more presently.

The argument given to the students for their studies is that villains get the best clothes and the best lines - who wouldn’t rather be the villain than the good guy? When a student asks the reasonable question of why villains do everything in such a complex way, Dr Nero agrees that they could just zap everyone without having to resort to a space station, for example, but when you’re a first-class villain, you have to do everything with style. (Pity the villain of Austin Powers didn’t think of this response).

Otto wants out. So do his friends, Laura the Scottish girl, the American girl, Shelby, and Otto’s room mate, Wing Fanchu. They plot their escape together. But things aren’t as simple as they think. And there are things Otto doesn’t know about why he is so special to Number One that Dr Nero has been ordered to keep an eye on him and make sure nothing happens to him. Dr Nero doesn’t know why, either, but in this job, you can expect a lot worse than being on the dole queue if you fail the boss.

By the end of the novel, it is clear that this is the first in a series; a lot of loose ends haven’t been tied and the last line implies future sequels. Based on hints thrown out in the novel, my bet is that Otto will turn out to be Number One’s clone and that Number One wants to take over his body at some stage. However, this is only the first book and my guess shouldn’t keep you from reading it or giving it to your children to read - they will probably not pick up on the hints, and I might be wrong.

You also wonder, whether it’s wise to educate all those future villains, since they will undoubtedly compete with each other and could wipe out the world in doing so. And why, anyway? What’s the point? Still, you have to suspend disbelief in this matter. It’s worth it.

There’s plenty of humour and plenty of adventure here and while some characters are over-the-top, the main characters are generally likeable and you do hope they will succeed. In the end, a good story and characters you can care about are the most important elements of a good novel.


A teenager called Ram wakes up in the stairwell of a high-rise apartment with a bad reputation, somewhere in a small Scottish town. He doesn’t remember anything about his past, although his name comes to him when he is asked. He doesn’t even remember how he got to his current sleeping-place.

All this soon becomes less important than survival when he discovers a dying man in the lift and becomes suspect number one in the murder. What was the dying man trying to tell him? Why is he being pursued not only by the police but by the Wolf, an assassin generally believed to be only an urban legend in the area? What about the mysterious Dark Man who has been looking for him via newspapers and the Net and clearly does know who he is, though he means Ram no good? In the course of the novel, Ram finds unexpected help from some characters and unexpected betrayal from others.

The novel is presented from a number of viewpoints. Ram’s chapters are in first person. The others are in third person - the Wolf, Lewis, the young police officer who is working on the murder case, Gaby the schoolgirl who first saw him with the body and even the Wolf. Gaby has seen the victim before, but doesn’t want to admit it because that would mean telling her family where she was that night. Lewis suspects that all is not right in his police department, but can’t prove it and doesn’t know who to trust.

All this adds up to a page-turning thriller for teens, and children up to about fourteen or fifteen should enjoy it. That said, you do have to suspend disbelief on a number of occasions. Ram rushes out of the building along with all the other derelicts, drug addicts and homeless people and almost immediately runs into a character who turns out to be searching for him, in disguise, to find out what he knows on behalf of his boss. So, how did he know Ram was the witness? When did he get the chance to disguise himself? How did he happen to be there when Ram ran past? There is a lot of coincidence of this kind in the novel and a couple of times Ram is rescued in the nick of time, by some convenient helpers who then wave goodbye and never reappear.

I also got the feeling that someone - author or publisher - thought it might be nice to do a series for those children who had enjoyed Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series and wanted more of the same. Lest you miss this point, there is a reference to Horowitz during the novel. Ram, hiding out at the local high school, decides to borrow some bedtime reading from the school library. He picks up a wonderful novel about a boy spy who has adventures around the world with lots of gadgets. Trouble is, we later learn that the novel he was reading was Horowitz’s novel The Falcon’s Malteser which is not, as the author seems to think, part of the Rider series.

Like Alex Rider, Ram seems able to get himself out of impossible situations, without even needing the gadgets.

I do wish that, for once, the villain wouldn’t waste time gloatingly telling the hero what’s going to happen to him, along with all the information about the fiendish plot being carried out - or that the Wolf didn’t find it necessary to carry Ram back to the flats where it all began so he can give him an appropriate death. Doesn’t ANY villain ever just shoot the good guy and get it over with? Probably, in this case, it’s because the hero needs to be alive for the next story in the series, when we will, presumably, learn more about the Dark Man and who Ram is.

Still, as long as the ends are tied by the end of the next book, it should work well, and it does make a nice junior version of The Fugitive.


Nury Vittachi is best known for his series of humorous crime tales about the Feng Shui Detective, a sort of modern Asian Sherlock Holmes who solves mysteries in between designing feng shui-correct offices and homes, and has an enthusiastic young Australian girl as his Watson.

In Twilight In The Land of Nowhen, he changes genres, from crime fiction to science fiction and writes for children rather than adults. There is still a mystery involved as the hero tries desperately to find a solution to his nasty problem, which could see him end up as literally a non-person. Intriguingly, the entire premise of this piece is centred around a scientific theory - in this case the Theory of Relativity. The end solution depends on physics, which is unusual in a children’s book.

Simon Poopoo has a serious problem, quite part from his embarrassing name, which is actually about a Hawaiian snack manufactured by his father rather than a toilet joke. He had been conceived out in space by his astronaut parents, resulting in his father losing his job and his mother being demoted to running supplies between the moon and the asteroids and at some time during her pregnancy, out in space, something had happened that affected both her and the unborn Simon. Simon hasn’t been able to ask his mother about it; he has been raised by his father and told his mother had died.

As the result of what had happened in space, he has been born with a glitch in his amygdala, resulting in a condition called displacement, fourth-dimensional synchronitis or “time-sickness”. In other words, he is three seconds ahead of everyone else in time. He answers questions before they have been asked. He reaches for things before they have been handed to him. This makes it utterly impossible for him to make friends at school; even those students who started off being friendly to him become annoyed at what they perceive as his weirdness. His teachers are also unimpressed, though he is good at his studies - a genius, in fact. His father is too busy going out with new girlfriends and working on his souped-up flying car (this is the not-too-distant future) to be interested in Simon’s troubles.

But Simon needs help urgently. Bad as it is, the time displacement problem is getting worse.. Simon’s only friend at his new school, the janitor Ms Blit, is more than she seems. She is a Stitcher, or “celestial seamstress”, one of twenty women responsible for “sewing up” holes in time. She helps Simon to control his problem to a certain extent, but tells him that, firstly, it’s incurable and secondly, if it gets much worse - it’s already the worst she has ever seen - Simon will find himself in the condition known as Nowhen, disappearing from history altogether. He will never have been born.

Can Simon’s urgent problem be solved before he fades away and is forgotten? Can the souped-up car be used for time travel? Can the pair convince Albert Einstein that they are more than a toasted-cheese-induced dream?

Read the book and find out.

Despite the humour, there are serious issues at a deeper level. Time-sickness could just as easily be a real-world fatal illness with no cure. Simon’s frustration with his father, who just won’t listen, and his deep wish to find his mother, are believable. It’s a nice idea to introduce children to the theory of relativity, and the scientist behind it, via an entertaining adventure story; hopefully, some of this book’s young readers might go off and look up the background information. And who hasn’t had trouble with school bullies at one time or another?

Recommended for children in late primary school to early secondary.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Aussie fandom and filking

We're not a large fandom. There are only 20,000,000 people in the whole country, let alone fans! The average con is about 150 people - a natcon might - and I say *might* - get up to 500. Even the last Worldcon, back in 1999, was only 1500. So a separate filk fandom, if it exists, would be very small. It's informal, as I said in a previous post. If there are filk cons I don't know of them. I did once have a couple of not-very-good pieces in a filkzine, but that was years ago. We do have a lot of musicians who are just as likely to sing or play folk as filk. They do it at room parties and in the foyer in jam sessions and otherwise late at night. Once, we had a very nice music session at a room party for members of the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine co-op. Someone played the harp as we passed around gourmet chocolates and homemade cookies... I can't remember if we filked, though I am usually tempted, at such sessions, to sing "Banned From Argo" very loudly.

At Swancon, the annual Western Australian con, I heard Charles De Lint singing a song he'd composed about Batman; when someone pointed out that it was a filk song, he was horrified! (g)

I will have to ask one or two filking friends to visit this blog and add their comments to clarify.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Filk song comments - thanks!

Thanks to all those who commented on my filk post! Nice to know this blog is being read, and please do come back. I am a general SF/F fan, but will certainly mention filk now and then. To the person who asked if there was a filk community in Australia - yes, sort of. It tends to happen very informally, late at night at cons, accompanied by hot chocolate, and a few years ago there was a formal filk singing performance at Aussiecon 3, our Worldcon. One of the performers was our wonderful fantasy writer, Dave Luckett. We also have a lot of fine musicians here, who simply go into the foyer at cons and jam. One of them, Anne Poore, a harpist, did a jam session with the De Lints when they were here. Charles De Lint, though, doesn't consider himself a filk singer. It's been years since I had the chance to attend a late-night filk session, though, and I don't know who is composing them. But I still listen to my tapes and sing them in the shower. :-)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Review of White Tiger

I wrote this review for January Magazine, which hasn't published it at this stage. If it turns up in January Magazine, fine. Meanwhile, I present it here. The book is fun and has already been borrowed more than once from my school library, suggesting to me that I was right to think it goes over well with teenagers.

WHITE TIGER By Kylie Chan (Volume 1 of the Dark Heavens trilogy). Published by HarperCollins Australia

Young Australian woman Emma, living and working in Hong Kong, is hired as a nanny for Simone, the adorable small daughter of millionaire John Chen, who is a hunk and kind as well. She doesn’t take long to fall in love with the man she thinks, at first, is a spy. He isn’t a spy. Emma soon finds out that he is, in fact, a Chinese god, personification of the north wind, a god of martial arts, weather and water, whose True Form is a turtle - and that all the visitors to the house are also gods. Chen had married a mortal, Simone’s mother, and been dumb enough to promise his wife that he wouldn’t take True Form, something he has to do regularly or his “batteries” will run down. His wife is dead, but if he takes True Form now he will be stuck in it for years and be unable to protect his child. So he has been getting gradually weaker and every demon in Hell is after him. The Demon King has offered a huge price for his head and the way to get it is through his daughter, by taking her hostage. Chen has a bodyguard for the child, fierce Afro-American Leo, who knows their secret and has some special training in demon-slaying, but it just isn’t going to be enough. Emma loves the child as well as her father. Time for the nanny to get some training in martial arts and demon-slaying...

When I was first discovering Star Trek fandom many years ago, there was only one version, no spin-offs, and it had been cancelled, so we were writing our own. The stories varied from space opera to comedy to romance. A part of the last-mentioned was the sub-genre known as “Mary Sue”.

Mary Sue - whose adventures continue to this day in various science fictional and fantasy universes - was a sort of supergirl. She was brilliant and beautiful and amazingly gifted in everything. She saved the ship and often the universe, in the company of the powerful man whose love she had gained (in those days it was usually Mr Spock, but could be any member of the crew, depending on the author’s preferences). She was generally the alter-ego of a new writer trying her first steps in fiction.

“Mary Sue” is often used as a derogatory term. Myself, I thoroughly enjoy a well-written tale of this kind; they can be a lot of fun.

To me, at least, White Tiger reads like an entertaining Mary Sue.The heroine, Emma, is brilliant and brave and beautiful and everyone admires her, even the villains. Like Mary Sue, she wins the love of a powerful man - in this case, of course, a Chinese god. She learns martial arts very quickly, as well as magical techniques to help in demon-slaying. She doesn’t save the universe - perhaps this will happen in the next two books - but she does save the child and even Leo the bodyguard.

It also reads like a cross between The Matrix and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and should appeal to teenage girls who enjoy Buffy. Mary Sue was always a teenage genre anyway, and despite the heroine’s age - late twenties - this is very much young adult fiction. It’s probably too female-centred to appeal to boys, though.

The author has great confidence in what she is writing about. She lived for several years in Hong Kong and knows it well. She also has martial arts skills. It is refreshing, too, to read a story centred around Chinese mythology instead of the Celtic stuff that forms the basis of so much fantasy these days, and there is a useful glossary at the back of the book. There are also some likable characters, such as the White Tiger of the title, Bai Hu, the West Wind. Tiger is a cheekily lecherous character who impresses women in his cuddly tiger form and has managed to get himself a harem of women who know what they have let themselves in for and don’t mind a bit. There’s humour; among other things, Chen had done a thesis, while at university, comparing himself with King Arthur!

However, I think it would have worked better if about a third of the book had been cut. I was waiting for those lunches with Emma’s two friends, April and Louise, to have some significance to the story, and for April’s unpleasant husband to turn out to be working with the demons. It didn’t happen. Neither did Emma’s old employer, Kitty Kwok, nasty as she was, turn out to be the Queen of the Demons or an evil sorceress. She just kept nagging Emma to visit her. There were quite a number of scenes that simply didn’t move the story along and the romantic elements were often overwhelming. How many times is it necessary for Emma and John to gaze yearningly at each other and declare themselves to be “a pair of idiots/fools”? Much of the rest of the novel is dedicated to Emma’s training, presumably as a set-up for the next two volumes.

I suspect the main reason for this is the current practice of publishing most fantasy as a trilogy. This really would be better as two volumes of fast-moving story, but has been padded out to make a trilogy, and consequently, despite all those battles against demons, the pace is slower than it should be. And this is a pity, because it’s a great idea and could really be a rip-roaring page-turner with lots of humour and lots of the martial arts that are so popular in fiction and movies these days. Hopefully, Volumes 2 and 3, having been set up, will get on with it.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

This Ongoing War

I have added a link to the blog of Arnold Roth, an old schoolmate, whose daughter Malki was killed in the bombing of a pizzeria in Jerusalem a number of years ago. I'm an old leftie and firmly believe that you don't make peace with your friends, you make it with your enemies, but my blood boils when smug armchair critics tell us that, while they don't condone the murder of young kids having a cup of coffee in a pizzeria, or on a school bus, or hitch-hiking, "we have to understand why it happens." Let's hope they don't ever have to say it of an incident that kills one of their own children.

I am not going to turn this into a political blog, but I feel the need to put in this particular link - Arnold has done a lot of research and has some very interesting links. It is vital to see the other side of the question.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Quentaris is no more!

It was a wonderful series and we were confident it was going to go on for quite a while. Children were discovering the wonderful world of heroic fantasy through a quirky city on the edge of a set of caves leading to other universes. Some of our top writers had great fun writing the stories and the covers were gorgeous. The students at my school were borrowing them like hotcakes.

Alas, the "new broom" of Hachette has decided to sweep clean, even a series they described as "gold". Three cheers for Paul Collins and Michael Pryor, who kept it going for so long and did such a great job. I hope they can find another market for it.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


On my recent trip to Brisbane, I visited my friend Natalie Prior, whose husband is a recorder musician, and when Peter very kindly made me a CD of some music I needed desperately for my work, I suddenly realised what my Garage Band software was for, and that I could do exactly the same thing on my own computer - that finally I could put on to CD some of my irreplaceable tapes. I don’t have the appropriate adaptors, but I have an internal microphone and a good CD/radio/tape deck, so what-the heck!

The tape I wanted to do right away was a filk music collection made especially for me as a gift. As long as I was recording this, it was a great excuse to get out all my filk song collections to listen to, bringing back my early days in fandom. I bought them during the 70s and 80s, when people were recording them. Filking is still a part of science fiction fandom, but those were the golden days, for me, at least, when filking happened at every convention and songs were composed for fans to sing, some by fans such as Leslie Fish and Linda Short, others even by writers. Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson and Joe Haldeman were all known for their filks. Charles De Lint, who sings and plays at cons, says he doesn’t do filks, but was horrified to learn that a humorous song he had composed about Batman counted as filk music.

What is filk music? For the most part, it’s science fiction and fantasy-related music written to existing tunes, which makes them easier for people to sing, as long as they have the words. But there is a lot of original music too - Linda Short’s first album, “Songs Of The Seven”, was all original music, but people complained because they couldn’t just sing them with the words, so she did another, “Ditties From the Edge of The World,” with existing tunes for her original words. There’s something very special - magical! - about sitting around late at night during a con, singing songs related to your passion, some about novels you’ve read, others about novels you might then decide to read as a result. And, of course, there are the media-related songs, about “Star Trek”, “Blake’s Seven” and such. I confess to having written a few myself, just for fun, at one stage. Pretty silly ones, which I certainly realised when Linda recorded one for me, “All My Tribbles”. “Day Trip To Vulcan” went to the tune of “Day Trip To Bangor”, of course, and was a tongue-in-cheek relating of the story of the Trek episode “Amok Time”, as told by “Bones” McCoy. Something along the lines of “Didn’t we have a lovely time/The day we went to Vulcan/The weather was fine, only one-twenty-nine/And that was in the shade, you know...” There were others, even sillier. I never, of course, thought myself anything like the giants of filk music. Well, they could sing, for a start.

My songs weren’t, let’s face it, even as good as the filks we used to sing together in Austrek, my Star Trek club, back in the 1970s. We had some cheeky folk then. My best memory is of one that went to the tune of “Advance Australia Fair”, that started, “Trekkers of the world rejoice, Spock’s in pon farr again/The only question that remains is who and where and when...” but there was another one, very suggestive, that went to the tune of “The Quartermaster’s Store”. I can remember being at a con in Sydney where the guest of honour was George Takei, who wanted to know the Sulu verse and the song’s composer was just too embarrassed to sing it to him!

Linda’s voice was a sweet folk soprano along the lines of Joan Baez, if you can imagine Joan Baez with a northern British accent. Leslie Fish, an American, was more like Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, though huskier, possibly due to her chain smoking. She can sing in a very cheeky style for the humorous songs or powerfully for the serious ones.

Linda Short was a wonderful British filk singer whom I met through “Blake’s Seven” fandom some time in the 1980s. Well, we never actually met, even when I went to England - she was ill at the time and lived, anyway, so far to the north it was just too far to travel. She was a pen pal. I do regret never having met her, especially since she passed away a few years ago, from a breast cancer she assured me had been caught in time.

Over the years, she recorded three tapes. I bought the generally available ones, but one she made for me at Christmas one year when she thought it was the only way to be sure she gave me something I didn’t have. What a treasure it was, too! Several of the songs came from the Westerfilk collection, some were her own, including two with words by Rudyard Kipling, one with words by a very funny British fan writer called Val Douglas and - wince! - my tribbles song. Tonight I got out the tape and, with a lot of messing around, finally managed to get it on to iTunes through Garage band and burn it on to CD, so that I never again have to worry about my precious personal Linda Short filk tape degrading and snapping. Now that she is gone, it is all the more important to make sure her voice stays alive, at least.

As I write this I am listening to “Skybound”, a Leslie Fish tape I bought at Aussiecon 2, back in 1985. It’s got some gorgeous pieces on it, but her classic is “Solar Sailors” which was actually released on record and had such delights as “Banned From Argo”, another suggestive ditty about what the Enterprise crew get up to on shore leave - the names are never actually mentioned, but you know who the characters are. I remember singing that one in Israel, to my American room mates, who hadn’t heard of filking before (though they did have a taste for Breton folk music, something I hadn’t discovered before and loved when they played it for me).

Why is it called filk music? I don’t think anyone really knows, though everyone has an opinion. One is that they’re “filched from folk songs”, another that it started with a typo. Probably there are plenty more theories. Whatever the explanation, it’s a wonderful form of expression for SF fans, something I don’t think you’ll find in any other “fandom” , or not to the same extent.

Ah, doesn’t it bring back the memories, listening to it all...?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A View From The Other Side Of The Slushpile

Like other writers, I’ve experienced the anxiety of sending in a story and waiting for a reply from that magazine overseas, like so many others I’ve had the disappointment of the rejection slip, the annoyance of wondering if my tale had even been read (I still believe that some of them weren’t) or if they had had less of a chance because they weren’t American. I did once have a personal rejection slip from Marion Zimmer Bradley, typed on a manual typewriter and definitely from her, though a friend once told me she had a reputation for not replying personally. I still have it somewhere - it’s the only personal rejection slip I ever got from the US, though I got some from Britain and within Australia, where I live. Those were the days before the Internet, when you had to buy two International Reply Coupons, or visit a philatelist for US stamps, send the thing with a self-addressed envelope and a cover letter that said, “This is a photocopy, so trash it if you don’t want it, but please reply.” And then wait - and wait - and wait. And, after three or four or six months, send a polite letter of inquiry, asking if they’d received your story and sending another SAE with another two reply coupons, which were a very expensive item. And chances were that you would then get your story back, crammed into the envelope, or sent surface mail in a large envelope if it was too long for that, covered in coffee stains and with a printed slip.

You had to really care about your story to keep submitting in those days. I’d usually have more than one doing the rounds, but they were stories I had had to type up a few times because I didn’t have a computer back then; I was very proud of my gorgeous new electronic typewriter, which I had bought with money won in the Mary Grant Bruce Award for children’s fiction. You could actually type up a whole sentence and check it before letting it print!

With the Internet, you no longer have to worry about International Reply Coupons or overseas stamps, for the most part - some publishers still want stories by paper, because they don’t like having to spend time and money on printing out your stories. But mostly, you can just e-mail your magnum opus and it means you probably won’t have to wait six months for news on one short story any more. It also means, unfortunately, that a lot of people take a lot less trouble over their work; it’s just too easy to finish, turn it into an attachment and hit the “send” button.

This has become very clear to me since I’ve started to see the slush pile from the other side.

A couple of years ago, I joined the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine Co-operative. This is a group of science fiction fans who decided to get together to produce a new Australian magazine that would publish funny SF and fantasy, because there is so little market for either humour or SF (as opposed to fantasy) these days. Naturally, no magazine is going to survive if it’s entirely, or even mainly, dedicated to humour, and it does have a good balance of humour and serious fiction. But we would, it was decided, choose stories that had - well, story - about them rather than angst-ridden mood pieces, say. Stories that entertained, that gave pleasure, would have priority over depressing ones. (Which didn’t mean we wouldn’t take depressing, when it was good - one of our stories that has had the most awards is terribly sad!) A couple of the co-op members - Simon Haynes and Tansy Rayner Roberts - had written funny SF. Simon had had to self-publish his Hal Spacejock novels, but they had done well and have now found a trade publisher. Tansy’s two novels, published by a trade publisher, were out of print, but she had gone on to a successful career of writing short funny fiction.

The magazine has appeared regularly and attracted some good reviews and a number of the stories have been shortlisted for awards or “Best Of” anthologies. That, in its turn, has led to submissions - lots and lots of submissions, many of them from the US, all sent by e-mail, because that’s how we operate. We read them blind, to be fair. Names are removed from the manuscript.

When you’re reading stories weekly, always hoping that the next one you open will be Hugo material, you begin to wonder how many people study their market before hitting “send”. Some of it is good mainstream stuff that should, however, never have been sent to a genre magazine. Some of it is obviously fresh from a writing course, done as an exercise and sent to every possible market on the list. Some of it is clearly by teenage boys who are still writing space battles and alien invasion stories. Actually, I don’t mind the teenage stuff, because I think it’s great that kids are having a go and some of them, while unpublishable, are written by kids you know are going to be writing the real stuff in a few years and I’ll be pleased to say I once slushed their work.

Most of the slush I read is clearly written by adults who should have known better. They’re adults, but they’re still writing alien invasion stories, usually about staunch Americans battling the villainous aliens. Or they’ll come up with a cute idea and write it into a story, without bothering to create characters you can care about. The entire story is usually written entirely for the punchline or for the idea itself. “Ha ha, it’s a Western set in space, get it?” or “Hee hee, the spaceship is really the Star of Bethlehem” and so on. (I recently did read a Star of Bethlehem story which I found quite touching, even if Arthur C. Clarke did it far better, and it was by no means a Clarke ripoff, concentrating on a different angle, and I passed it on to the next round of readers.)

Sometimes the story could have been good if the author had put it away for a while and had another look at it. I read it and say, “yes, yes, nicely-written, but this or that part of the story just doesn’t make sense and the story falls apart as a result”.

Often, the worst stories are the ones that are the longest - I have read excruciatingly awful stories of novella length and no good ones. I have, in all but one case, made myself read the whole thing anyway, because it’s someone’s baby which I am going to have to call ugly and I keep hoping there will be some part of it that I can say something positive about. We send feedback, you see, which is one reason why so many people submit - I know of at least one case where the rejected writer had been using us as a free feedback agency and was most annoyed when people actually liked her story but couldn’t find a spot for it! She hadn’t got anything she could use to re-write and send it elsewhere. The one time when I didn’t finish the story, I skipped through to the end and found there wasn’t actually an ending - it was 9200 words long and something had gone wrong in the sending. So, long as it was, it had actually been longer!

Very occasionally, I receive a story of which I say, “Oh, that was wonderful!” But only occasionally - and it invariably turns out to be by a well-known writer who knows his or her stuff.

One thing I have learned from all this is never again to send off anything I don’t care about deeply, anything that was just a bright idea on my part - “what if the inhabitants of Sodom were all vampires ...?”, for example - and always to put it away before sending off. It means I’m writing fewer short stories - most of my professional writing these days is commissioned non-fiction and articles for children - but when I do write fiction, it’s going to mean something. I don’t care. There’s still plenty of material which I can go back to, when I am ready to ask myself why I wrote it, and some stories that were rejected and put away have material I can use elsewhere.

Not everyone has the benefit of reading slush, but I can only hope that some writers who get lots of rejection slips will learn the same lessons I’ve learned from being on the other side of the slush pile. And I’ll continue looking for that potential Hugo-winner...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Quentaris (or is that pronounced Kentaris?)

It's a series of books designed to introduce children to fantasy fiction - sort of a junior Thieves' World (in that it's a shared universe) with a touch of Ankh-Morpork, and it's doing very well, sales-wise. It's doing well in my library too, because I promote it. I have been reading my way through the series in hopes of getting one to write, and have managed to get hold of most of them. The series is a lot of fun and would be great fun to write. Children like fantasy, they enjoy sword-waving and this series works also for young adults, though not the kind who have read Lord of the Rings, but then it's not designed for them. Each story introduces more characters, buildings and such, which then become a part of the universe, but they're stand-alone, so none of this fat trilogy business where you have to read them all and read them in order.

That definitely meets with my approval! (I'm the one who suggested a panel on "The Dreaded Trilogy" at a Continuum and then found myself the only panel member who wasn't a trilogy writer, and we were facing a full-up hall with a lot of annoyed readers who HATE having to buy three books for one story. Hmm, maybe the subject for another post).

Saturday, May 06, 2006

It's True! review

Here is my first review for this blog. I review for Linda Richards' January Magazine - - an excellent on-line review zine. On this site, I will be writing reviews that Linda can't publish - crime fiction, which another editor does, books that may be older than a few months, books that someone else has reviewed on the January Magazine site or that have been published already overseas but have only just been released in Australia, where I live.

In this case, I would like to declare my interest - I have a book in this series, Your Cat Could Be A Spy - but I was sent the books below to review and, while some others in the series are not as good as these, this particular bunch are very good indeed and deserve reviewing. Children's books get very little review space anyway and since this series has been around for a while, hardly anyone is bothering to review the books any more, even the specialist magazines. If you'd like to buy one of these titles, try the website - - or the general Allen and Unwin web site - If you live in Australia, the books will already be available in the shops. You can order them from one of the bigger bookshops if you live outside Australia and sooner or later, they will reach your neck of the woods.

Now, read the review!

IT’S TRUE! You Eat Poison Every Day (Peter Macinnis), Hauntings Happen And Ghosts Get Grumpy(Meredith Costain), Space Turns You Into Spaghetti (Heather Catchpole and Vanessa Woods)

These three books are the most recent titles in Allen and Unwin’s It’s True! series for children between the ages of eight and twelve. They are aimed at the younger end of the range, but can also be enjoyed by older children.

Children do enjoy non-fiction when written for entertainment. They like to know new things, preferably disgusting, but quirky will do, hence the popularity of the Guinness Book of Records. Teachers and parents tend to think that if it isn’t fiction it isn’t a real book, though there’s the occasional grudging, “Oh, well, at least they’re reading...”

When properly done, a non-fiction book can tell just as good a story as any novel and at the same time teach them new information that they don’t necessarily have to use for a school project.

This series in general aims at that. Some of the books are better than others and it must be said here that the latest have shown an improvement in style. Gone is the bitsiness, i.e. one short anecdote after another, that made some of the earlier titles less good than they could have been.

You Eat Poison Every Day, written by an expert in the field, is the quirkiest of the three, but provides quite a lot of good factual information, including why poison isn’t much use as a murder weapon in modern times. There is plenty of fascinating historical background and bizarre stories about weird murders and why the usually idiotic killer was caught, as well as the uses of poisonous ingredients in paint, wallpaper, make-up and even clothing dyes. Reading it, you aren’t surprised people lived such short lives in the past, you’re surprised they survived as long as they did! And don’t think we’re living in a poison-free world now, either - I found myself muttering, “Oh, no!” in dismay as I read. Children should enjoy this for the grossout factor at the very least!

Hauntings Happen And Ghosts Get Grumpy, by veteran children’s writer Meredith Costain, covers various areas of the supernatural, from ghosts and things psychic to UFOs and firewalking. There are personal accounts of supernatural things that happened to the author and her family and friends, as well as more historical events. Meredith Costain does suggest some possible alternative explanations to spooky interpretation of the events mentioned, but leaves it to the young reader to decide. That’s appropriate for this type of book. It’s a lot of fun, with interesting anecdotes from around the world; I even learned that my local cinema, built on the site of a dance hall, is haunted by dancing ghosts. Now I’ll know what’s happening if someone dances past in the dark the next time I go to the movies...

Space Turns You Into Spaghetti is written by the team who wrote an earlier title, There Are Bugs In Your Bed. It gives a simple introduction both to the space program and astronomy. There is a brief mention of UFOs, but because this is a science book, the notion that there might be extraterrestrial visitors out there is gently but firmly put down, at least to suggest that there is no evidence and we don’t know. The authors suggest that if the reader really wants to help search for life elsewhere in the universe, she should check out the SETI At Home program, which helps make sense of all the signals we’re getting. There is a chapter about “So You Want To be An Astronaut” followed by one about whether you’d like to live on another planet, leading into the astronomy section of the book, which is mostly about the solar system, the sun, the life cycle of stars and black holes. The authors of this book love their subject and it shows. It is not a book meant to be used for that school project about the solar system, though it could be. It’s about the wonder and beauty of the universe. I wrote a book on the space program myself, back in the late 1990s, Starwalkers: Explorers of the Unknown, and I can relate to this one.

All three books have useful web sites listed at the back and Hauntings also has an extensive book list. Do yourself a favour and buy these as birthday gifts. It will save you a search and the children who receive them will actually enjoy them, not just offer polite thanks!

Picture of Sue

Picture of Sue
Originally uploaded by Zeldaleh.
This is me. My friend Ben Flora, an excellent photographer, took this photo of me for publicity purposes when I was writing my first book. It has only recently appeared on the Allen and Unwin web site, but I thought it might be nice to have it here too.

First Post!

I am hoping this will be a blog which will feature book and film reviews, science fiction stuff, links to web sites that I enjoy and anything else that enters my head. I do already have a general blog, but this is one I'd like to throw on to the WWW and see who comes to visit.