Losing the V-plates

Virginity! It’s what Australia’s talking about right now – and whether teens (read: teen girls) should regard it as a “gift” to give away lightly. Writes Alexandra Adornetto (a 17-year-old virgin whose pro-virginity opinion piece is accompanied, ironically, by a somewhat come-hither photograph):

My recommendation would be to wait [to have sex]. Wait for the right moment, the right person and the right situation. Becoming sexually active is not to be entered into lightly. I have seen too many girls damaged by a decision that was not carefully considered.

Assuming you’re safe and responsible, is sex itself actually what’s damaging? I reckon it’s certain attitudes to sex that are damaging, not the act itself. … 


Book review: The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

I was chatting with a friend not long ago about Neil Gaiman’s writing style, and we agreed that his is an authorial voice you either like or you don’t: my friend doesn’t like it, but I do. A lot. Gaiman has a knack of adapting to whatever genre he’s writing in, but his work always has a sense of the very old, the very deep, and the very strange.

I started The Graveyard Book with high expectations, and wasn’t disappointed: Like all the best children’s literature, it’s wildly imaginative, seductively scary, and a sophisticated read for both kids and adults.

Loosely inspired by The Jungle Book, Graveyard is the story of a baby who escapes from the ruthless killer who’s murdered his parents, and escapes to a very old graveyard. Rechristened Nobody “Bod” Owens, he’s raised by the graveyard’s ghostly  inhabitants and encounters vampires, werewolves, witches and other beasties as he grows up. (The Guardian has a more detailed, though mildly spoilery, synopsis; I recommend going into it without knowing about the plot’s direction.)

It kind of reminded me of Harry Potter, if Harry Potter‘s sprawling story was condensed into a single book: Graveyard has the same magical, captivating and adventurous tone. I felt really sad when I turned the last page, both because of the way the plot wrapped up, and because I’d finished a really great book.

Each chapter advances Bod’s age by around two years and stands alone as a story (more or less), making this a breezy read. If you never read anything of Gaiman’s before, this is a fine entry point. ((After you finish Graveyard, try his short story collection Fragile Things. Then move along to American Gods and Anansi Boys, or maybe Coraline (which I haven’t read, yet, though the movie adaptation is stellar), if you’re looking for more “kiddie” stuff. I haven’t sampled Sandman yet, but I plan on getting to it one day.))

Gaiman has proposed writing more books exploring the backstory of the Graveyard universe, but with a darker, more adult tone – a sort of “The Lord Of The Rings, to which The Graveyard Book would have been The Hobbit“, in his words. I want to read that book so bad. Right now. (Especially since the propects of a Graveyard Book movie aren’t looking so hot right now.)


50 interesting Wikipedia articles

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

See: #48.

I have a folder of bookmarks titled “Interesting wikis”. Here’s a selection of those entries, presented in no particular order:

  1. Nihilartikel
  2. Mornington Crescent
  3. Acoustic Kitty
  4. Superceded scientific theories
  5. Trap street
  6. Kardashev scale
  7. Cryptid
  8. List of fictional companies
  9. Mint mark
  10. Bloop
  11. Russell’s teapot
  12. List of superhuman features and abilities in fiction
  13. Unsolved problems in physics
  14. War of Currents
  15. London Monster
  16. Monkey-man of Delhi
  17. Spring Heeled Jack
  18. Steganography
  19. Rat king
  20. Roc
  21. Scopes Trial
  22. Aether
  23. List of colors
  24. List of fictional elements, materials, isotopes and atomic particles
  25. 4′33″
  26. Tonton Macoute
  27. Philosophical zombie
  28. Mary’s room
  29. Lich
  30. Pale Blue Dot
  31. Names of large numbers
  32. Sleipnir
  33. Triple Goddess
  34. Molon labe
  35. Pascal’s Wager
  36. Bifröst
  37. Missing dollar riddle
  38. Bertrand’s box paradox
  39. The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever
  40. Defamiliarisation
  41. Celeritas
  42. Apopudobalia
  43. Caltrop
  44. Types of gestures
  45. Phallus impudicus
  46. Joseph Grimaldi
  47. Sun dog
  48. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
  49. Caladrius
  50. Salamander (legendary creature)

(This post was inspired by this post.)

This series of posts continues: click here to read 50 more interesting Wikipedia articles, and Another 50 interesting Wikipedia articles.


Book review: The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins

The Hunger GamesOh boy. Talk about un-put-down-able.

There’s a reason every YA blog on the internet raves about The Hunger Games and its sequel, Catching Fire: they’re cracking reads with an unstoppable narrative thrust. I gobbled both up inside a week.

It’s heart-pounding stuff. Allow me to steal a synopsis from Stephen King:

The yearly highlight in this nightmare world is the Hunger Games, a bloodthirsty reality TV show in which 24 teenagers chosen by lottery fight each other in a desolate environment called the ”arena.” The winner gets a life of ease; the losers get death. Our heroine is Katniss Everdeen (lame name, cool kid), [who] lives in a desperately poor mining community called the Seam, and when her little sister’s name is chosen as one of the contestants in the upcoming Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

Catching FireWhile teenagers battling each other to death has been done to death, Hunger Games proves that a not-so-original premise can nevertheless turn out an original book. I had no idea how the first book would turn out, while the second book has an unexpected twist (spoiler: Katniss and Peeta are forced back in the arena – eek!) that made my insides twist.

Quibbles: Katniss sometimes comes dangerously close to becoming one of those annoyingly perfect heroines who doesn’t realise how perfect she is – she’s great at everything she does, admired by all, has suitors literally willing to die for her, et cetera. The books are saved, I think, by her first-person narration. We’re right inside her head, experiencing the Games with her, and she’s such a trustworthy, capable companion that you can’t help liking her.

And while author Suzanne Collinns’ sparse pose is often employed to brutal effect, she has a tendency to write great action scenes then rush through the links between them. The very worst example of this comes right at the end of Catching Fire (spoiler: when the crux of the rebels’ plan to sabotage the Quell is revealed in a single paragraph of passive speech), and it’s so on-the-nose it might’ve spoiled the whole book if it weren’t for that epic cliffhanger.

If you haven’t read Hunger Games, do so – but wait till August, when the third and final instalment in the trilogy is released. Then you won’t have to wait months and months waiting to find out what happens. Like I will. Aargh.


In defence of Twitter: Yes, everyone knows it sounds kinda like a rude word


Dear everyone who’s not into Twitter: please stop bashing Twitter.

Or at least stop bashing it via lazy criticisms which everyone’s sick of hearing, such as:

“I don’t know what Twitter is ‘for’.” You sound like an ignoramus when you say this. It’s like boasting that you don’t know what the internet is “for”.

“I don’t need to know what strangers are eating for breakfast.” If you’re following people who only tweet about what they ate for breakfast, you’re following the wrong people.

“140 characters isn’t enough to say anything substantial.” Sure it is. Try using the site.

“Hey, did you know that ‘Twitter’ sounds like ‘twit’ and ‘twat’? Let’s make puns based on this observation!” Oh ho ho. Important: The “twit”/”twat” jokes stopped being funny when vaudeville did. Joke about Twitter, but come up with  new material please. The existing stuff is as insightful as comparing Sarah Jessica Parker to a horse ((Not that I think SJP is especially equine, but “She looks like a horse, hur hur” is a gag made about her that needs to be put out to pasture, pun intended.)).

And when you write patronising articles like this, which treat Twitter’s users (in particular, Twitter’s female users) as superficial airheads who use the site  to gush about the trivial high-school details of their life, you sound foolish and deserved to be mocked by the internet.

Okay, sure, Twitter is a great place to gush about the trivial details of your life. But that’s not its only purpose. Much has been made about Twitter’s big-picture usefulness. But it’s a handy thing for everyday people to have in their everyday lives, too. For example: when I was slogging through the final chapters of My Book, it was nice to check into #amwriting and see that, hey, there are a lot of people working at this too, even if I don’t know any of them.

I think that’s kind of rad.

But after all these years I’m still reading articles in the MSM about “novelties” like online dating and adults who play video games – somehow I doubt the Twitter-bashing will end anytime soon.


Book review: The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock HolmesI bought this one a few months ago but only picked it up over Christmas, after seeing the new Sherlock Holmes movie: it’s a collection of fanfiction ((Actually, this is interesting. If a derivative story is written by a fan who’s also a professional author, does it cease to be fanfiction? Is fanfic defined by its amateur nature?)) short stories written by prolific authors, exploring the famous sleuth’s “improbable” cases (a reference to his famous quote).

First impression: though the blurb indicates that the tales track Holmes’s investigations in the fantastic, many of the stories are relatively mundane. But this isn’t a bad thing – by “mundane” I only mean they’re set in the “real” world that Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote in.

But the bulk of the stories are rooted in fantasy, as Holmes and Watson ((Best. Sidekick. Ever.)) confront Lovecraftian monsters, New Orleans pirates, dinosaurs, ghosts and other beasties. There are some absolutely cracking stories here – some of my favourites included Neil Gaiman’s haunting ‘A Study in Emerald’ (which is one of the best short stories I have ever read, period); Peter Tremayne’s ‘The Specter of Tullyfane Alley’; and Naomi Novik’s ‘Commonplaces’, which isn’t even one of the supernatural ones, instead offering a remarkable take on Holmes’s and Irene “The Woman” Adler’s reunion during his Great Hiatus.

(There are several other stories that I really really really loved, but if I include them all this post will turn out very very very long.)

If you’ve burned through all Doyle’s Sherlock stories and you’re looking for something fresh, absolutely pick up a copy of Improbable Adventures. I kind of want to go off and write a Sherlock fic of my own now…

And one last thing: I liked Sherlock Holmes (the movie), but Improbable Adventures – whose stories, while not canon, are generally written in a voice akin to the one Doyle lent Watson – highlights that Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock is very unlike the real deal. Make of that what you will.


Short story: Dear J…

Dear J,

So I have no idea what my parents are doing in the basement but they are making so much noise down there. I am trying to study but all I hear all night are bangs and crashes.

Don’t you dare even suggest they’re “making love” or something, because that’s gross. Besides, it doesn’t sound like… that. Not that I know what “that” sounds like, har har. But you know what I mean.

And last week I heard a scream coming from down there. It didn’t sound like Mum or Dad. Remember that time we went camping by Arkham Lake with your mum and step-dad, and when we tried to go to sleep the wind howling through the trees was so loud we thought it must’ve been two huge cats having a fight or something? It sounded like that.

So anyway I rushed down to the basement to see if they were okay but they wouldn’t let me in. Mum came out and told me I didn’t need to worry, but she was really pale and didn’t stop shaking till I made her a cup of tea. Then she made me go to bed without even telling me what’d happened. And the next morning Dad apparently left for some interstate anthropology convention before I even woke up, and he hasn’t come back yet and he’s too busy to even bother calling, so I haven’t had the chance to ask him about it either.

A few nights later Mum fell asleep in the living room (with all the lights on! And she’s always on at me about wasting power) so I snuck into the basement to see what’s going on. The door was deadlocked but everyone in the world knows where they “hide” the key in their study. And you know what I found down there?

Nothing. Not even any of the usual dusty relics they’re always bringing home from the university.

The basement was so dark, because for some reason the only light on down there seemed to be one of those weird ultraviolet ones, like they had at that lame dance we went to last winter, though I couldn’t see where it was coming from. The whole basement was all purpley-black and hurt my eyes. And it reeked of fish like you wouldn’t believe. Like they’d bought every single thing at the fishmarket and just let it rot for a month.

So I poked around for a bit but pretty much the only thing down there was this enormous book propped open on the desk. I guess it must’ve been valuable or something because it was chained down. I couldn’t really make out the writing but it was all Latin anyway.

Last night Mum was back in the basement again for hours, I guess messing around with the power because it made my alarm cut out and I was late to school. But the worst part? When I got home this afternoon, Mum had dyed her hair totally white. WHITE. She looks like a grandma. I asked why on earth she would embarrass me by doing that, but she refused to tell me and slammed the basement door in my face.

I’m really worried! This girl at school said her mum got an extreme makeover right before her parents divorced. Except her mum apparently got a boob job instead of wrecking her hair. I hope my parents aren’t getting a divorce! Then when I asked Mum when Dad’s getting back from his so-called “business trip”, she started crying and locked herself in the basement again.

So I hope it all works out okay.

Anyway. How are you? Did you win your netball final?

Love, S


Click here to read more of my short stories.

Author’s note: I wrote this for a short-story contest held by Nathan Bransford, in which the criteria was to “Write the most compelling (fictional) teen diary entry [or] unsent letter” in a teen’s voice. SHOCKINGLY, I didn’t win. Possibly because none of the other entries were written by anyone who’s been overdosing on Lovecraft-inspired fiction lately…?

Creative Commons Licence
Dear J by Sam Downing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Why are sitcom characters such jerks?

I watch a lot of television, the bulk of it reruns of classic American sitcoms on pay TV. I’m noticing a pattern here: pretty much every American sitcom character is a jerk.

And I’m not just talking about Seinfeld, where the lead foursome are acknowledged as jerks and you love them for it anyway. I’m referring specifically to Friends (though there’s plenty of other examples out there. See: pretty much every other sitcom ever to come out of the US), which on the surface is often held up as a shining example of the closeness that every modern clique should aspire to.

But even a cursory examination of the show (which I’m generally a fan of, by the way, lest you think I’m just dumping on it here) reveals that Monica, Ross, Chandler, Rachel, Joey and Phoebe are pretty much huge jerks. Like, no wonder they don’t have any friends outside their immediate social circle.

In the episode that inspired this post, Rachel steals Phoebe’s answers when they go to a book club together, Joey shoves Ross (who flies off the handle because of a vile-sounding sandwich) in Central Perk, and Chandler makes disparaging comments throughout.

So if the characters are such jerks, why was Friends so phenomenally successful?

TV Tropes (which, by the way, is one of the greatest sites on the internet ((Warning: you will end up spending more time than you have to spare browsing TV Tropes))) offers one answer: the Friends get away with being jerks because they’re funny. They are. The scripts are snappy. The cast has fantastic chemistry. So you forgive the characters their jerkiness.

I propose another answer: the Friends are, as already shown, jerks. Yet they remain friends for 10 years. And isn’t that everyone’s fantasy? To have people in your life you can constantly snark at and speak down to, yet still remain close to?


Book review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling, read by Stephen Fry

Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsI read an article recently in which Stephen King described J.K. Rowling as “a terrific writer”. Which is a perfect description: J.K. may not be the best writer, but she can tell one hell of a story. (Incidentally, it was the same article in which King said that Stephenie Meyer “can’t write worth a darn”, which – no comment.)

And Deathly Hallows is one hell of a story.

Mostly by virtue of being the last book in the Harry Potter series, meaning by default it includes the thrilling climax – ie, Harry defeats Voldemort. (And I am so not putting a spoiler alert around that, because first, the book came out two-and-a-half years ago, and second, if you didn’t know that goodies always defeat baddies, you need to get out more.)

It’s only the second time I’ve read the book since it came out, and what struck me on re-reading is how little action there is in the story – sure, there’s the bits at Godric’s Hollow and Gringotts and Hogwarts, but most of the story is very dense exposition (same goes for the preceding entry, Half-Blood Prince). Since Hallows was released in 2007, several wags have commented that the book’s plot basically consists of Harry et al camping in the woods for a year. Which is true. But I kinda like all that backstory, particularly Dumbledore’s backstory. It makes the earlier books and the characters in them all the richer.

(I’m also impressed that J.K. left it till the last book to reveal the Hallows themselves, given they turn out to be one of the central tenets of the finale.)

That said, the book isn’t perfect. It needed a more thorough edit – it’s loaded with sentences like “Harry could hear…” which ought to have been replaced by “Harry heard…”, and there are superfluous weres and wases all over the place. But the most egregious offence is that syrupy epilogue. Every time, it makes me groan – it’s so sappy. I generally don’t care for stories that drag on beyond their “proper” end point, so I kinda wish that whole last chapter had just been cut.

Also, I didn’t technically read Deathly Hallows: it was read to me by Stephen Fry. Sadly, he did not read it to me in person; it was via the magic of audiobook. But if you have a lengthy road trip coming up, I highly recommend his readings of Harry Potter – he is just fantastic. You know a man is exceptionally talented when he makes an already magical world even more magical.

Lastly, I’m predicting that Deathly Hallows: Part 1 will conclude after Harry and Hermione’s ill-fated journey to Godric’s Hollow. That seems like a pretty logical end point.