Category Archives: reviews

A good reading year

A few years ago when I was guest writer at a local university writing class I was asked, “Do you read much science fiction these days?” My immediate response was to say that I only usually read SF when I’m paid to do it. Then I realised that sounded quite bad. What I meant by my answer, and went on to explain, was that much of my reading – in any genre – is dictated by what I’m asked to read for reviews and critiquing, so it’s usually a luxury for me to get to sit down with a book I’ve actually chosen for no other reason than that I want to read it.

I’ve read some fine books this way, and made some lovely discoveries, but I do miss the opportunity to just go off and explore books like I used to many years ago.

Wolves by Simon IngsThis year I’ve managed to find a bit more of a balance, though. Add that to my good fortune in finding some superb review books and the first half of 2014 has provided some of my  best reading in a long time.

One of the highlights was Simon Ings very welcome return to SF with the stylish augmented reality whodunnit, Wolves. My Guardian review of this won’t appear until the mass market paperback edition of the novel appears later this year, but in it I draw comparisons with JG Ballard and Christopher Priest. It’s weird and unsettling, presented in an understated manner that almost sidesteps the fact that it’s an SF novel until everything builds up and all the elements pull together. I’d love there to have been more from Ings over the years, but with this novel alone he’s rapidly playing catch-up.

The Unquiet House by Alison LittlewoodAnother Guardian review book, Alison Littlewood’s The Unquiet House reads like a classic haunted house story that, save for the obvious contemporary elements, could easily have been written at any time in the past hundred or more years. Throughout, Littlewood strikes a pitch-perfect balance between mystery and steady revelation, building anticipation and fear with the kind of verbal brushstrokes you’d expect from Joyce Carol Oates. A master class in haunted fiction.

I reviewed Andy Weir’s The Martian for the Arc blog, and here’s my opening paragraph:

Please indulge me while I get this out of the way at the start: Wow! Andy Weir’s The Martian is an incredibly accomplished first novel. Hell, it’s an incredibly accomplished anythingth novel.

It’s a space survival thriller, cleverly loaded with technological detail and balanced with a jokey first-person confessional narration. A book so full of mathematical extrapolation (just how long will the oxygen etc last?) really shouldn’t be such a gripping page-turner, but it is. This is the kind of thing that hooked me on SF as a teenager, and it’s the kind of book the proves SF is a genre still full of life and potential. Great stuff!

The Moon King by Neil WilliamsonAs well as these three stand-out review books, as I said earlier I’ve been reading more for pleasure, too. In genre fiction, the real highlight has been Neil Williamson’s The Moon King. This is stylish, quirky fantasy at its very best. Beautifully written, full of fabulous imagery and strikingly original, this novel follows events in an island city dominated by the cycles of the Moon in what may be the end days as the machines tethering the Moon to the city’s skies begin to fail. Williamson has written some deft and moving short fiction over the years, but with this novel he’s really hit his stride and this is a novel that should feature prominently on the big award shortlists next year.

Moving away from genre fiction, this year I’ve returned to one of my all-time favourite writers, Roddy Doyle. I started with the free short story, Jimmy Jazz, which picks up the story of Jimmy Rabbitte, former manager of Dublin soul band The Commitments, now in his late forties and trapped into listening to jazz in order to please his wife Aoife. Doyle’s a genius for characterisation and voice, with dialogue that makes me smile like a madman as I’m reading and a particular knack for creating powerfully moving moments that sneak up on you unnoticed until they deliver the body blow.

The Guts by Roddy DoyleThe short story did its job: I went straight out to find The Guts, Doyle’s novel set a year before Jimmy Jazz, telling the story of Jimmy’s battle with cancer as he struggles to keep his music business going in the face of recession. It’s right up there with Doyle’s best work, which for me means it’s among the best novels I’ve ever read.

Partway through reading this, I was slightly taken aback to realise that while I’ve watched the movie several times, and went to see the West End musical soon after it opened, I’d never actually read the original novel of The Commitments. So I bought it, and now I’m partway through reading it, and loving it, naturally.

Still only in July, and I’ve read some absolutely superb books. While I hadn’t exactly fallen out of love with reading, I think I’d become a bid jaded. These are the kinds of books that put the fire back into reading, though: I’m full of enthusiasm again, and that feeds into my writing, too – reading good books makes me want to write them. And read more, of course.


Great response to The Fabulous Beast by Garry Kilworth

The Fabulous Beast by Garry KilworthLovely review for Garry Kilworth’s new collection over at the Guardian:

“His forte has always been the short story. The Fabulous Beast, his eighth collection, gathers eighteen stories of horror and dark fantasy. They’re never less than entertaining, and all share startling initial ideas – what if Jesus had been known only for his ability to walk on water? What might happen to a captive vampire if deprived of human blood? – allied to a graphic and often grotesque descriptive ability.”

And on the back of that, the ebook edition has leapt into two Amazon top tens, and sneaked into another top hundred.

Fabulous Beast riding high at Amazon

Nice to see recognition for a writer I’ve always hugely admired.


The Harmony buzz

I’ve written here before about how it often feels as if we publish into a vacuum: a book goes out, you get a handful of reviews, eventually some sales figures, and that’s it.

Harmony by Keith BrookeOn its publication last June, my alien alternate-history novel, Harmony (UK title alt.human), definitely followed this pattern. There were a few nice reviews, a handful of nice comments, and then… nothing.

This year, though, things changed. First there was the short-listing for the Philip K Dick Award, which was pretty damned nice. Then, in the last two or three weeks the book has picked up some lovely responses.

There was the Battle of the Books, for starters, an interesting review format that pairs books up into a knockout competition where the book hardest to abandon gets through to the next round. Harmony was up against the likes of China Miéville’s Railsea in one round. Given the competition I’d have been more than happy with just being reviewed in the same bracket as some of these books; to go on and win was a lovely bonus.

Earlier this month a reader posted about Harmony:

I just finished reading Harmony and I was enthralled by the story. I want more! I was intrigued to see that you mostly publish via Kindle. I don’t have one, but because I want to read more of your stories, I’m going to go get one. Please keep writing! Just my two-cents worth.

You don’t get a much better response than that!

Then, following this run of good comments, Bridget McKenna (a rather good author and one of the Philip K Dick Award judges) posted a review at Amazon, which said, among other things:

The English language is a remarkable thing, and Keith Brooke is a remarkable writer who can make it do his bidding with the best of them. In alt.human (US title: alt.human aka Harmony) he has not only created an exciting and believable world full of fascinating, realistic characters and situations using his native tongue, he has also dug down into the nature of language itself and brought back surprises (and prizes) to create layers of meaning and subtlety and emotion in a way most writers would’t have thought to approach. … You won’t soon forget Brooke’s cast of characters or the world he created to test their resolve to be human on the brink of extinction, by whatever ways and means they can create for themselves. You won’t soon read a better, more completely realized science fiction novel.

And then Tony Daniel (one of my favourite SF writers, who very kindly stepped in on my behalf to do a reading from Harmony at the PKD Awards ceremony), said to me on Facebook:

Harmony is a dense, rewarding vision of a possible future and the story of a young man’s quest for human-graspable meaning in a highly expanded, often incomprehensible world. It’s got echoes of all sorts of great influences. Very Dickian, but also very Dickensian. It’s real science fiction, and it’s a success as a novel. The whole thing is a grand philosophical view of a weird-yet-plausible reality that you got across marvelously, with marvelously chosen words. I’m just glad of the fact that you trusted me to read a bit of it aloud and talk about it with people, or I might not have gotten around to reading it through. Everybody who likes science fiction should read it soon if they haven’t.

Most of the time, yes, we work in a vacuum. After all, writing is not a spectator sport: we shut ourselves away and hit that keyboard for hours on end.

And no, we don’t write for the acclaim and the praise.

But hell, when they come along, all those little pats on the ego that tell you someone out there has got what you were doing, it really is appreciated!


Battle of the books

It’s not often you come across a new and interesting way to explore books, and for all I know this has been done before elsewhere, but the Fantastic Reviews blog’s Battle of the Books is fascinating.

The premise is this: take 16 books, pair them up, and then for each pair read the first 25 pages; out of that pair the winner is the book the reviewer most wants to continue reading at that point. In the next round we’re down to four pairs and the cut-off point is 50 pages; then in the semi-finals the cut-off is at 100 pages; and finally the last two standing are judged overall.
Harmony by Keith BrookeAt first sight this is a bit of fun, lifting a game-show format and applying it to reviewing. But the reality is far more than that. For the successful books you have a step-by-step extended review, picking out various aspects of a book as they emerge, giving a wonderful insight into the reading of that book as it unfolds, rather than a review written with hindsight. It also provides a very interesting angle for each review; in the most recent entry, for example, my own Harmony (as published in North America; UK title alt.human) is up against China Miéville’s Railsea. Naturally enough, the focus is on how the two books portray the weird and, as the reviewer says, nobody does weird better than China. Earlier rounds have focused on the reader’s engagement with characters and a book’s sheer unputdownability (that is officially a real word: I just told my spellchecker so).

As a writer this whole process has been fascinating; for the reader it should be equally so, although as with any detailed review there’s the danger of spoilers, particularly in the later stages of the battle.

And as an aside, even after around 25 years as an author, it still surprises me when someone really gets one of my stories. That the reviewer in this contest gets Harmony so well is fantastic; that this comes in the week leading up to the announcement of this year’s Philip K Dick Award winner really brings it home. It’s not so much that I’m suddenly thinking I’m in with a shot (Harmony is one of seven on the shortlist, so I have around a 14% chance), but simply that it’s finally, after all this time, starting to sink through my thick skull that there are people out there – like the team at Fantastic Fiction, like the PKD judges – who really do get what I’m doing.

And that’s kind of cool.
Incidentally, it gives nothing away to be posting this: to reach the semi-final against a writer of China Miéville’s calibre, and for my novel to have received this kind of detailed attention, is pretty damned good, in my reckoning. For the results, and the excellent analysis, you’ll have to go to Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Semifinal :: Railsea by China Miéville vs. Harmony by Keith Brooke.

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Reviews and the fragile ego

Some of my writing friends tell me they ignore reviews. I even believe some of them.

But how can you not be interested in what readers have to say? Even if it’s a probably unrepresentative sample of readers, the ones who either choose to write down their response or are paid to do so.

Nowadays it’s hard to avoid your reviews even if you do want to. If you use Facebook, Twitter, etc, you’ll find that you’re tagged in posts mentioning reviews, and you can’t help but dip into them.

Now, I’ve been knocking around for a while now, and I’ve been reviewed just about everywhere. Also, I write reviews (most recently for the Guardian and Arc), so I’m aware of the constraints, challenges, complications, etc, that go with the territory.

My own take on reviews of my work is this: yes, I’m interested, but I’ll certainly consider a review’s context, whether it’s a good or a bad review. A good review in a national newspaper is great because it’s a review from a fellow pro who hasn’t necessarily chosen to read your book (although beware the complex relationships in publishing that could sway things one way or another); a good review on a sixteen year-old’s blog is great, too, for entirely different reasons.

Reviewers at all levels get it wrong: I’ve had lots of reviews that get the facts of a book wrong, which is very different to misunderstanding what I was trying to do in a book; those reviews are devalued because of this. And sometimes a reviewer really gets what you’re doing, or even sees depths or angles you weren’t aware of yourself. That’s pretty damned cool.

It’s impossible to separate all this from the usually fragile state of an author’s ego. I’ve written on here before about this, and how sometimes it feels like you’re writing into a vacuum. Why put your work out into the wild if you’re not hoping that people will respond? And how disappointing if there’s just silence? Reviews are one way of gauging this response, albeit an imperfect one.

There’s a context for the response to a review, too. Anyone who’s followed my tweets and bloggery will be aware that I’ve had lots of pretty pissy things affect me, and those I love, over the past few months. I’ve been on meds for depression for much of the last year; my wife’s been seriously ill, culminating in a big operation in January (from which she’s now making a fantastic recovery); one of my daughters has had two long spells of several weeks in hospital. And there have been lots of other, lesser, woes.

This is my context, and after a couple of recent bad experiences in the publishing world I couldn’t help but start to wonder if it was all worth it. When I passed 25 years as a writing pro last year (with two more books out that year), I wrote about this. Quite simply, I was tired and depressed, and writing was taking too much out of me.

This year? Well, a few things have slotted into place. I’m in a better frame of mind (maybe it’s the drugs, but hey); my wife is doing well; my daughter is back out of hospital again today; I’m doing things I like, and starting to get the urge to commit science fiction once again. And on that front, the writing one, it was fantastic to hear a few weeks ago that my novel Harmony (published in the UK as alt.human) had been shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award.

And, returning to the subject of this post, reviews… I’ve had some lovely ones in the last few weeks, and that really makes a difference: someone has given you a chance, someone has got what you were doing.

Just to pick out a few examples…

Upcoming4.me picked out the new edition of my novel Lord of Stone (always one of my personal favourites), describing it as “gritty, clever and thought provoking. Well recommended!”

And then, just yesterday a couple of tweets caught my eye.

Andreas Wittwer said:
“alt.human (aka Harmony) by Keith Brooke, one of titles that have been taken off the to-read stack in the past weeks: http://t.co/QnftBvtVPy
– a link which led to a lovely review that said, among other things, “Like with The Accord, I feel that I again have to make a note about the prose. It’s more than just pacing and skillful use of narrative modes, but also that Brooke has something less tangible, a certain command of tone, that few novelists can manage.”

And in another tweet Michael Bround said:
“Wrote a thing about @keithbrooke‘s oddly untalked about (in my circles) #Harmony and #TheAccordhttp://bit.ly/Y5AgSn
– leading to a review of both The Accord and Harmony, in which he said, “Keith Brooke is a Science Fiction author I never hear anything about. Which is profoundly weird because he is really, really good… If I were going to create a list of ten Sci-fi novels everyone should have to read, The Accord would be among them. I do not understand how this novel isn’t a bigger deal.” And, “Harmony is just another masterful Sci-fi novel that should also be a bigger deal than it apparently is.”

When a writer is looking for a response, when a writer’s fragile ego needs a bit of nurturing… well, it doesn’t get much more rewarding than responses like these.


Philosophy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

This is an interesting one that slipped past my radar, until a friend pointed it out to me last week. A new book from Palgrave Macmillan, Philosophy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, edited by Nicholas Joll.

It does exactly what it says in the title, providing an exploration of the philosophy underlying Douglas Adams’ iconic series. It’s written in a well-balanced intelligent and entertaining way: not too heavy, but also not too glib or superficial. There’s no reason why philosophy books should be dull, of course; and equally, there’s no reason why books on popular culture should be glib. Hell, there’s no reason why any books should be dull or glib. And thankfully, this is not a dull and/or glib book.

So there we are: fun and intelligent and not at all dull. What more could you want? Unless you were looking for something dumb and dull, of course.

Available from:


Guest review by John Grant: The Dreamthief’s Daughter by Michael Moorcock

(Earthlight, 342 pages, hardback, 2001 )

In pre-WWII Germany, with the Nazis on the ascendant, Count Ulric von Bek is one of the many who look upon developments with dismay — but a largely passive dismay, for fear of the bully-boys. He is not allowed to continue thus, however, for the Nazis, in the person of his cousin Prince Gaynor von Minct, seek the ancestral sword of the von Bek family, Ravenbrand, as well as the Holy Grail, also entrusted to the family but reputedly lost by von Bek’s mad father. Von Bek contacts the Resistance, and, with the enigmatic Herr El and the lovely wildling Oona, who is like himself an albino, makes plans to retain the status quo. Another albino appears frequently to von Bek in dreams and visions — a berserk-seeming figure who has a savage cast to him.

Before much can come of any Resistance schemes, Gaynor has von Bek thrown into a concentration camp where, despite physical torture, he declines to reveal the location of Ravenbrand. At length, as he nears death, the albino of his dreams appears magically with Oona and an enigmatic British agent, Oswald Bastable, to free him. They flee to Hameln where, … la Pied Piper, von Bek splits open a rock using the regained Ravenbrand and they enter a subterranean realm, Mu-Ooria, populated by the mentally superhuman Off-Moo. Here they are pursued by Gaynor and his Nazi demon sidekick Klosterheim.

And here, too, the mysterious dream albino — who is of course Elric of Melnibon‚ — gains a greater reality, in due course managing to combine himself with von Bek so that the two become one. The dual entity returns to Tanelorn, where as Elric it discovers that Gaynor has ambitions far beyond the mundane ones of the Nazis: through forming a duplicitous alliance with the Goddess of Law, Miggea, Gaynor hopes to overthrow Chaos and gain the rule of all the multiverse. Elric, as an arch-prince of Chaos, must resist him.

The remainder of this tale twines its way absorbingly through various aspects of the multiverse — Moorcock’s great conceptual creation, the myriad related worlds in which stories are eternally played and replayed, with archetypes as the puppets of unknown puppeteers. In the end, of course, the balance between Chaos and Law is restored, at least for now.

The novel (although divided into three) has essentially four parts: von Bek’s time in pre-War Germany; his and Oona’s adventures in Mu-Ooria; the adventures of Elric and of the dual Elric/von Bek entity in and around Tanelorn; and the long, complex final section in which Elric, von Bek and the ever- resourceful Oona — who is Elric’s daughter by the dreamthief Oone, and with whom von Bek, despite an uneasy sensation of incest (for he and Elric are alter egos), falls in love — journey between the worlds and bring a resolution to the main conflict while also, in the conflict of this world, bringing a resolution of sorts by turning the tide of the Battle of Britain back against the Luftwaffe.

The four sections succeed to greater and lesser (mostly greater) extents. The Mu-Ooria sequences, with their Edgar Rice Burroughsian ambience, in the telling hark back even further, to the sort of 19th- or even 18th-century otherworld fantasy in which the otherworld itself is deemed to be of such marvel that the reader is intended to be entertained by somewhat painstaking, plodding accounts of the geography and populace rather than any plot advancement. There are longueurs here and also a sense of alienation on the writer’s part, as if Moorcock recognized while writing them that the sequences were failing to lift off the ground but could not abandon them because this section of the book is integral to the rest.

That rest, by contrast, in general sings. Von Bek’s experiences in Nazi Germany, and his growing knowledge that he is part of a greater mystery, are as gripping as any World War II adventure story. The sequences where Elric and later the dual entity must quest, with Moonglum, through the bleak and alien world into which the goddess Miggea has transplanted Tanelorn, like an orchid into a desert, are superbly conceived High Fantasy and eerily evoke the dream-sense; while the long concluding section — with the small exception of the clumsily handled, contrived-seeming sequence in which a dragon-mounted Elric and von Bek attack the advancing waves of the Luftwaffe, thereby giving rise to the legend of the Dragons of Wessex — demonstrates why Moorcock possesses the towering status he does in any consideration of the history of fantasy. In this final section he is creating new structures of fantasy, rather than recrudescing the old — a rare achievement, alas, in the modern genre.

Of great interest throughout is the question of identity and the workings, through the nature of the multiverse, of not just the multiplicity of a single identity but the coalescing into a single identity of a multiplicity; one has the sensation, reading this book, of this going on all the time in a kind of endless flow, as reality itself shifts and twists — rather like an analogy of the impermanent alliances the villain Gaynor forges with the different gods. Von Bek is at one and the same time both Elric and not-Elric, and that duality persists even once their two identities have fused. (The same obviously is true of Elric, who is both von Bek and not-von Bek.) Elric’s sword Stormbringer and the von Bek family’s sword Ravenbrand have a single identity, even though they are physically twain and remain so, even when in proximity. Oona is both a daughter and a lover to the double identity that is Elric- von Bek. Gaynor is at one and the same time a human being and an eternal Evil Principle. There are other examples.

That this is in fact a true nature of reality is plausible in a post-Heisenberg frame of reference (whose analogue might be Chaos, by contrast with Newtonian-style Law), which sees identity as a transient property, dependent upon, among other factors, the act of perception. It is pleasing to see such notions worked out in a novel of, ostensibly, High Fantasy — not a subgenre noted for its deployment of scientific thinking, and indeed generally marked by antiscientism.

This is also an intensely political novel. Time and again Moorcock explores the motivations behind the parasitic quest of tyrants for power and their obsessional need to stamp order (Law) on that which should not be ordered — to wit, humanity. The relevance of this is obvious when Nazism is the despotism under consideration; but there are not so subtly encoded references to other, more recent, “democratic despots” of the Right. The name of the Goddess of Law, Miggea, seems a clear anagrammatic reference to Maggie/Margaret Thatcher, a political figure who while in power earned the public hatred (or fear) of many surprisingly disparate creators. Here, for example, is Moorcock’s description of the world Miggea and her rule of Law have created:

Miggea’s was no ordinary desert. It was all that remained of a world destroyed by Law. Barren. No hawks soared in the pale blue sky. Not an insect. Not a reptile. No water. No lichen. No plants of any kind. Just tall spikes of crystallized ash and limestone, crumbling and turned into crazy shapes by the wind, like so many grotesque gravestones.

Later Herr El (aka Prince Lobkowitz), in talking of the rise of the Nazis but also of any regime of obdurate Law, however convivial its veneer — any regime that pretends the solutions to complex problems are simple, and then imposes through the use of power or force those simple, but (or hence) profoundly wrong solutions on the world — is the mouthpiece for a sideswipe at Thatcher’s American counterpart:

They are the worst kind of self-deceiving cowards and everything they build is a ramshackle sham. They have the taste of the worst Hollywood producers and the egos of the worst Hollywood actors. We have come to an ironic moment in history, I think, when actors and entertainers determine the fate of the real world.

Moorcock’s contempt for the politicians of Law is of course allowed to be seen more naked when the subjects under consideration are safely distant in history, like the Nazis and (in brief references) the Stalinist despots of Soviet Russia. Late in the book there is a long and hilariously — though darkly, bitterly — satirical scene in which a disguised von Bek, inadvertently thrust into a car with Rudolf Hess, must listen to an interminable outflow of arrant, antiscientific, credulously ignorant nonsense from the Deputy Fuehrer. Hess and by implication his colleagues in the Nazi hierarchy are portrayed as what Brian Stableford has termed “lifestyle fantasists”, the attempted reification of their particular brand of insane and simplifying fantasies involving, of course, untold human suffering. Hence Elric’s — and one presumes Moorcock’s — detestation of Law and adherence to Chaos.

As mentioned, there are some doldrums in this book, but they are in a relatively early part of it and easily ploughed through. Overall, The Dreamthief’s Daughter is mightily impressive not just as a demonstration of the fantasticating imagination in full flight but because of all the different aspects of meaning which it embodies — analogues, in a way, of the myriad diversely aspected worlds of the multiverse. It is one of those rare fantasies that merits repeated reading with, each time, a different facet of its full meaning to be derived.

Warm Words and Otherwise

This review, first published by infinity plus, is excerpted from John Grant’s Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews, published on September 19 by infinity plus ebooks:

A bumper collection – over 150,000 words! – of book reviews, many of full essay length, by the two-time Hugo winning and World Fantasy Award-winning co-editor ofThe Encyclopedia of Fantasy and author, among much fiction, of such recent nonfiction works as Corrupted Science and (forthcoming) Denying Science.

Scholarly, iconoclastic, witty, passionate, opinionated, hilarious, scathing and downright irritating by turn, these critical pieces are sure to appeal to anyone who loves fantasy, science fiction, mystery fiction, crime fiction and many points in between … and who also enjoys a rousing argument.

Warm Words & Otherwise is available from:

amazon.com (Kindle format, $1.99)
amazon.co.uk (Kindle format, £1.44)
Smashwords (various formats, including epub, mobi, Sony and PDF, $1.99)



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