Tag Archives: reviews

Some nice mentions for infinity plus books

Fabulous review of Jason Erik Lundberg’s Strange Mammals from the Guardian:

“Jason Erik Lundberg’s third collection, Strange Mammals, gathers 25 short stories in which literary naturalism gives way to the surreal, the absurd and the magical… Lundberg has the enviable talent of achieving emotionally resonant effects within just a few pages.” Guardian

Meanwhile, James Everington was recently interviewed at Ravenous Reads, the piece introduced with this lovely reference to James’ recent infinity plus collection Falling Over:

“another fantastic collection which showed off Mr. Everington’s skills in the short fiction arena and made him a star in my eyes”

And over at Upcoming4.me this week, Claude Lalumière writes about the Story Behind Nocturnes and Other Nocturnes.

All three of these books are available in ebook and print formats from infinity plus:


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.


Great review for Iain Rowan’s One Of Us

Lovely review of Iain Rowan’s CWA Debut Dagger-shortlisted novel, One of Us:

“enough satisfying twists and turns to satisfy any crime fan… An excellent novel”

http://indieebookreview.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/one-of-us-by-iain-rowan/

One of Us is available from:
CreateSpace (paperback $11.99)
Amazon US (paperback $11.99)
Amazon UK (paperback £14.99)
Book Depository (paperback £7.45 - cheapest UK option we’ve found!)
amazon.com (Kindle format, $2.99)
amazon.co.uk (Kindle format, £1.99)


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)



Guest review by John Grant: Collecting Candace by Susan M Brooks

(Small Dogs Press, 200 pages, paperback, 2005)

The nameless protagonist of this neo-noir piece first encounters Candace in a Florida bar, and is instantly captivated by her. Long legs, skimpy clothing, cute face, suggestive tattoo, beaucoup de bosomry — what sensitive, reconstructed male ascetic could resist her? He picks her up — or is it the other way round? — but not for sex: not only is she seemingly oblivious to the notion that sex might be anticipated, but his desire for her is entirely psychological, you understand, rather than physical, so that an act of sex with her would destroy the iconic Candace he has so swiftly created for himself. He wants to discover her mentally rather than carnally . . . with the carnal option perhaps left open for later.

What he discovers about her is that all the previous males in her life — notably her three husbands — done her wrong in one way or another, perhaps most particularly through their quite inexplicable eventual dumping of her. It soon becomes plain to the reader why all this inexplicable dumping went on: Candace is a vapid moron of the most tedious imaginable kind. The protagonist, however, effectively conceals this patent fact from himself, finding her a constant maze of fascination and desirability. He casts himself into the role of her Knight in Shining Armor, and sets off, with her in tow, to exact revenge upon those males in her past who have so grievously ill treated her. In merry road-movie-psycho fashion, the pair of them cheerfully and gruesomely slaughter Candace’s exes, the inspiration for their crimes being almost as much the searingly hot Florida summer as the protagonist’s obsessed quixotry.

This is a novel with a great deal going for it, and its central premise has a sort of brutal effectiveness. However, the fact that the central femme fatale is seemingly such a complete bimbo, complete with a love for the Bible coupled with a total inability to understand the first word of the New Testament’s message, means that soon the reader is filled with the same urgent compulsion to escape her company as her exes undoubtedly experienced. The protagonist is little better: the novel’s conceit, initially intriguing, that he can be capable of such profound self-deception over Candace, eventually plummets to become exasperation and even incredulity that he could be such a halfwit. If she were banging his brains out one could at least understand his addiction to her: is there a male who cannot look back on protracted periods of gonads-driven idiocy? But that’s not the case, and can’t be: he’s made her into a figure of chastity.

Collecting Candace could get around these problems if it were exquisitely written. Unfortunately, the writing is rather clumsy. Were the two central characters possessed of one single scintilla of appeal, this roughness could add to the novel’s overall noir ambience. As it is, the roughness soon begins instead to grate.

Oddly enough, Collecting Candace is worth reading despite all these adverse comments . . . if you can stomach the unremitting bleakness of its vision of the most Neanderthal aspects of, and indeed members of, modern American society. It is from such ground that there springs the culture-of-ignorance whose current dominance has done so much to topple our country so swiftly from the position of world leader to world laughing stock. Brooks is to be heartily and very sincerely congratulated on having managed, in such a brief work, to do so much to explain this phenomenon.

Warm Words and OtherwiseThis review, first published by Crescent Blues, 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)



Guest review by John Grant: Shockingly Close to the Truth: Confessions of a Grave- Robbing Ufologist by James W Moseley and Karl T Pflock

(Prometheus, 371 pages, hardback, 2002)

Once upon a time — a glorious time — publishers used to release autobiographies by people who weren’t just movie celebs or ex-politicians or pop stars, but simply people who had led interesting lives and who could write about them interestingly. The autobiography — or at least a certain subgenre of it — was thus almost like a variant form of the novel, and readers tended to approach it in much the same way. You might never have heard of Fred Gluggitt, but he’d climbed Everest blindfold, slept with an Olympic belly-dancing team and subsisted for a year in the Australian Outback eating nothing but woodworms, and he could write in a way that had you bursting out in laughter every few pages. That was what you looked for in an autobiography: entertainment, a measure of education (perhaps), a window into someone else’s world, and, at the most profound level, a certain level of identification with and communication with all of one’s fellow human beings, not just with the individual who happened to be telling her or his tale.

Books like that are hardly ever published any more. Instead the tables in the remainder bookshops are piled high with the heavingly fat, probably ghosted, certainly carefully spin- doctored autobiographies of famous people whom you would run a mile rather than have in your living room, or even be stuck in a bar with.

Well, here’s an exception — an old-fashioned autobiography that captures the spirit right down to the deliciously hokey cover illustration.

Jim Moseley (one assumes Karl Pflock is a sort of fully credited ghostwriter) has been a ufologist for decades. Correction: not so much a ufologist as what he calls a “ufoologist”, observing and commenting on the field of ufology to a much greater extent than researching UFOs themselves. He certainly has done some UFO investigation — coming to the conclusion that, while every UFO case he has personally examined is almost certainly unmysterious, nevertheless UFOs taken en masse probably do represent a mystery — but essentially he has been, as dubbed a while back, ufology’s Court Jester. He has published the long-running muckraker-sheet-cum-investigative- journal Saucer News (now called Saucer Smear) — a sort of ufological Private Eye — and he has met and/or interviewed virtually all of the principal protagonists in a certain segment of ufology: what one could call the mainstream of US ufology in the second half of the 20th century.

Oh, yes, and as a sideline he’s occasionally gone on treasure hunts to Peru, conducting a legally questionable trade in ancient artefacts.

His reminiscences of all this are constantly entertaining, and on occasion very funny. What’s especially interesting about them is that Moseley can, as it were, reach the parts that professional UFO debunkers like Phil Klass cannot. This comment applies both to his encounters with other ufologists and to his studies of particular UFO cases.

To take the latter first: Moseley is open-minded about the existence, physically or psychologically, of UFOs, and it is with this attitude that he has approached any examination of a case. This is in contrast with either the debunker or the devotee, each of whom will go into the case expecting to have preconceptions confirmed: the debunker will find plenty to ridicule, the devotee plenty to believe. Moseley, on the other hand, has a good chance of finding what is actually there. That he, as someone who’s a part of the scene, has found enough to convince him that many famous cases are tosh is much more convincing than if, say, the late Carl Sagan had found the same: Sagan (who was interested in the subject in a minor way) or any other serious scientist would have investigated only as far as the first few obvious contradictions, whereas Moseley actually went on to probe such cases in some considerable depth.

In other words, by dint of the extent of his research he’s an expert in a way that few outright debunkers can ever hope to be. And this applies also to his observations of ufology. I can’t actually name any names here, because some of these figures are astonishingly writ-happy, but various of the barmiest of the ufology superstars have opened up to Moseley — despite his known editorship of Saucer Smear (which must go to show how barmy they actually are) — in a way they’d never think to talk to someone who wasn’t One Of Us. And Moseley, gleefully, lets them show themselves as they are.

His demolitions are all the more effective for this. Here, for example — there’s a plethora of choice — is his conclusion concerning Roswell, with a conclusion also about CUFOS (one of the major organizations devoted to supposedly scientific UFO study):

Whatever the original motivation, CUFOS has long since dropped any pretense of objectivity about the case and is the one UFO group that unwaveringly stands behind it without qualification.

That single sentence tells us a lot about ufology and also a lot about the representation of ufology in the media: anyone here who hadn’t gained the impression that most UFO buffs thought Roswell was likely to be pretty kosher, please raise your hands.

As the social history of ufology the publishers claim it to be in their cover blurb, even an informal one, this book is far from adequate. As noted above, it covers only a small segment of the field; plenty of really quite important ufological figures and their ideas, sane or crackpot, get no mention at all. The index lists only people, so there is no entry for, for example, Roswell, even though there’s quite a lot about the Roswell fallacy in the book; bad indexes seem to be a Prometheus speciality. I noticed that Hugo Gernsback is called “Gernsbach”, so for all I know there may be countless other individuals — or places, or organizations, etc. — whose names are incorrectly spelled. One could go on chipping away at the text on such grounds for quite a long time.

But that’s not really what it’s about. What this constantly entertaining book is about is a very haphazard (delightfully haphazard) ramble through the life of someone who’s been in the ufology game primarily for the fun of it. He has teased; he has hoaxed (often in tandem with his friend the late Gray Barker, although Barker almost made a profession of it); he has exposed (the whole of the 1957 issue of Saucer News exposing Adamski is reproduced in the appendix); he has annoyed (too many to name, but they’re the sort of people you feel good that someone’s annoyed); he has been ufology’s gadfly. At the end of the day, he was delighted when “a certain Harry Lime” wrote from Vienna, Austria (not Greeneland?), to tell him he should be proud of, not dismayed by, the sobriquet he’d recently been given in MUFON UFO Journal: “The Reigning Court Jester of Ufology.”

Revealing and entertaining by turns, Shockingly Close to the Truth is a book you’ll love or — assuming you’re especially po-faced — hate. This reviewer devoured it, and with a grin on his face the whole time.

Warm Words and OtherwiseThis 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)



Guest review by John Grant: The Legend of Rah and the Muggles by NK Stouffer

(Thurman House, 267 pages plus 12 pages colour illustrations, hardback, 2001; reissue of a book originally published in 1984)

By all rights, this review should be littered with instances of the letters “TM” in superscript, just as is the front cover of The Legend of Rah and the Muggles, for Nancy Stouffer is the author who has created minor shockwaves in the book trade by pointing out that the name “Muggles”, used by J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series, was previously used by Stouffer, who is also the author of a pre-existing series of books for the very young based on the character Larry Potter. Moreover, Stouffer’s illustrations of Larry Potter bear a very considerable resemblance to the depictions of Harry Potter on the covers of the Rowling books. The response of the book trade to Stouffer’s objections, in the USA at least, has been a courageous unofficial boycott of Stouffer’s books and a stolid silence on the whole matter: nothing must threaten the Harry Potter cash-cow.

Leaving the Larry/Harry Potter dispute aside, the Muggles of this book bear no resemblance beyond the name to Rowling’s. Instead, they are the mutant descendants — bald, huge- headed, small, childish — of the people left behind in the island nation of Aura, many generations ago, when the wealthy deserted it and them in the wake of a nuclear war. Since that time Aura has been covered with a purple haze through which sunlight can barely trickle but moonlight, paradoxically, can pass undimmed.

All this changes with the arrival on the shore of Aura of two baby twin brothers aboard a makeshift raft; they were cast adrift by their mother, as per Superman by his parents during the destruction of the planet Krypton, when she saw that her own country was plunging into an all-destroying war. Aboard the raft along with the twins is a magical illuminating stone, which brings sunlight back to Aura.

The two brothers, Rah and Zyn, are nurtured by the Muggles. Although identical in every respect to begin with, their personalities come to differ radically: Rah grows up good and wise while Zyn grows up nasty and spiteful. The dispute between them is chronicled in the Muggles’ ongoing Ancient Book of Tales, upon whose account the current volume is purportedly based.

Illustrated with a central clutch of Stouffer’s own rather jolly colour illustrations, The Legend of Rah and the Muggles is a much shorter book than the page-count above might suggest: the type is extremely large and the page margins likewise. It is also a very badly published book; clearly Thurman House does not believe in quaint customs like editing, copy-editing and proofreading (I liked the idea of a bright star “shinning” in the sky, and especially approved of the term “dinning room”). The text reads as if it’s a somewhat inaccurate transcript of an oral presentation, complete with shifts of tense (between past and present) and countless typographical and grammatical errors — a few spelling errors, too. Furthermore, this being a fantasy for young children, someone should have pointed out to Stouffer the meaning of the word “bugger”, which she uses frequently and clearly regards as innocuous.

Delivered as an oral presentation for children, this tale, which comes complete with songs (the music for one of which is supplied at the back), would one imagines be tremendous fun; it is easy to envisage a youthful audience falling around with laughter at some of the jokes, for example, while the ramshackle nature of the plot wouldn’t be evident — or, at least, it wouldn’t be important — in a spoken, necessarily episodic telling. As a printed novel the text doesn’t work nearly so well; most of the jokes just referred to fall flat when rendered in type. In their place are moments of humour that are certainly not deliberate, such as the Monty Pythonesque legend drawn from The Ancient Book of Tales about The Year of the Rabbits:

And so it was that the rabbits with protruding teeth lost their gentleness and ravaged the continent. . . .

Likewise, some of the early scenes, set in the castle where the noble Lady Catherine decides the only hope for her twin babies is to consign them to the mercy of the seas aboard a raft, smack considerably of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visitors (1919). Lady Catherine, although heartbroken over the death of her beloved husband Sir Geophrey (sic), nevertheless immediately starts flirting audaciously with her butler, with a strong suggestion that onstage flirting is likely to be matched by offstage naughtiness Real Soon Now, if it hasn’t started already:

“Sir, there is no woman in this room that wouldn’t trade dance partners with me right now; I’m not about to give them the chance. If that makes me wicked — so be it!” she said with a poor attempt at a Shakespearean delivery, and they both laughed.

Stouffer has not fully realized her fantasy world. Aside from the curiosity, already mentioned, of moonlight being able to penetrate where sunlight cannot, there are items such as the Muggles managing to grow fruit and vegetables in a sunless land. In the same context, the traditional Muggle songs make reference to such events as dawn, which the Muggles could not have experienced before the arrival of the twins; also mentioned in a song is the “star that’s shinning bright”, even though the very existence of stars, brightly shinning or otherwise, must be unknown to the Muggles. There are countless other such lapses.

Nevertheless, Stouffer’s achievement in conceiving the fantasy shouldn’t be underestimated. Although The Legend of Rah and the Muggles doesn’t bear up well in any comparison with Tove Jansson’s Moomins series, of which it is in some ways reminiscent, it has its excellent moments. I was much taken, for example, with the Greeblies, creatures amply worthy of inclusion — and this is high praise indeed! — in the ecology of Rene Laloux’s animated movie Fantastic Planet (La planŠte sauvage, 1973):

Greeblies are fat ratlike rodents that live in Sticky Icky Swamp and often hide beneath boulders. They are nocturnal little pests with faces that resemble rabbits’, and their large round ears curl slightly forward at the top. Their bodies are covered with gray coarse hair with black tips that look like they were dipped in ink.

Greeblies have short legs, but they can jump five feet in the air from a sitting position. Their long, coiled tails are used to quickly grab and snatch anything of interest to them, before being seen.

They have been known to grab hold of Muggle legs from behind and drag them frantically for yards and yards, before letting them go. Most often their goal is to steal food or raid the garbage.

Only two things frighten Greeblies: sand dogs called Nardles, and getting caught in a trap set by the Muggles — who would more than likely use them as dinner for their pet Nardles.

Nardles live in burrows along the shoreline, and Greeblies won’t go near them. Even though the Greeblies are difficult to see, the Nardles can smell them a mile away.

It is at times like this, when Stouffer’s imagination just suddenly lifts off the ground and carries her to who knows where, that The Legend of Rah and the Muggles is at its best. Given a thorough edit, this book could be much recommended; as it stands, however, the best that can be said is that The Legend of Rah and the Muggles is worth picking up primarily for its curiosity value and, of course, for its occasional delicious flights of fancy.

Warm Words and OtherwiseThis 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)



Guest review by John Grant: A Caress of Twilight by Laurell K Hamilton

(Ballantine, 326 pages, hardback, 2002)

I have to confess that, the last time I tried to read one of Ms Hamilton’s many novels, I got about halfway through and then threw it across the room. The book in question was called Narcissus in Chains, and was the umpteenth volume featuring Ms Hamilton’s series heroine Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. I had fought my way through about two hundred pages of badly written soft porn (I have no aversion at all to well written soft porn) and had come to a section where various of the loathsome characters were discussing adoringly the genital endowment of a particular historical vampire. This vampire, we were told salivatingly, had been the possessor of a penis so doughty that his erection was a full six inches thick.

That’s right: thick. Not six inches long. Not even six inches in circumference. But thick.

This reviewer did not, as might have so many other men, rush straight to the nearest mirror to gaze at and weep over his own deficiencies. He did not even accidentally turn the ruler to the centimetre side while frantically checking. Instead he threw the book across the room and then, remembering the principles of academic rigour, asked a couple of congenital experts on matters penile if such a weapon might be of any practicable use other than being waved around proudly to impress the rest of the guys in the locker room.

Gentle reader, they laughed so hard I wondered if I should call an ambulance. And the book stayed thrown.

A Caress of Twilight is not about Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. It is the second in a series of novels about Meredith Gentry, a princess of Fairyland who is also a private detective in our own world, it being the rather charming conceit of this series that the USA has offered a home to refugees from the Realm of Faerie. Meredith — “Merry” — is somewhat of a fugitive from the politics of the royal courts of Fairyland, some of whom wish to murder her and with others of whom she maintains at best a relationship of mutual distrust, powerbroking chessplay and hostile alliance. She is guarded by a bunch of other elementals, all male and all of them possessed of six-inch . . .

Well, no, not quite. At the start of the book, Merry has just finished a threesome with two of the guards, and as the tale — such as it is — progresses she samples the rest of them, in each instance for several drooling pages. Two of them prove to be endowed with members of such enormity that, while not six inches thick (oddly, Ms Hamilton gives no precise dimensions concerning such important attributes, neither in US Customary units nor in metric), our heroine has, to use technical phraseology, some considerable difficulty cramming the damn’ things in.

Now, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this book is nothing but nonstop writhing. There’s a plot as well. It’s rather problematic to remember what the plot actually is, because it appears only intermittently among the couplings, among lengthy and tedious character descriptions, and among interminable scried conversations with various royals that seem to have little point except to show what complete bastards they all are except our Merry — who might well be just as much a bastard if she could ever stay upright long enough, but that’s only a wild speculation on this reviewer’s part, you understand.

Lemme think, now. The plot has to do with a criminal investigation that Merry and her studs are attempting to carry out. There’s this ex-goddess of Fairyland who decided years ago to come to Hollywood and be a screen goddess in the human world instead. Someone’s out to get her. Someone’s also mass-murdering people in all directions, and the police — one of whom, the lieutenant in charge of the case, is really, really stupid and doesn’t think Merry and her pals will be at all helpful, whereas we wise readers know of course that she’s the only hope — the police, as I say, are getting nowhere. The screen goddess wants to have a baby by her mortal husband, but he’s at death’s door so Merry and one of her gang have to do some detailed proxy banging for the luckless couple. Someone in Fairyland has let loose an ancient terror which is responsible for all the bad things that are going on.

Case solved, out with the measuring tape and back to the fun.

Merry is not the only fun- and dimension-lovin’ female in the book’s cast, although she’s the only one whose fun is described in gratuitous detail. Here’s a sample of one of the others being unusually subtle:

“I also never thought you’d be so blessed down below.” [The Queen] sounded wistful now, like a child who hadn’t gotten what she wanted for her birthday. “I mean, you are descended from dogs and phoukas, and they are not much in that way.”

“Most phoukas have more than one shape, my Queen.”

“Dog and horse, sometimes eagle, yes, I know all about that. What does that have to do . . .” She stopped in mid-sentence, and a smile crooked at the edges of her lipsticked mouth. “Are you saying that your grandfather could turn into a horse as well as a dog?”

He spoke softly. “Yes, my Queen.”

That’s in fact one of the better-written parts of the book; elsewhere we find such delights as “He had managed to keep just enough cover over his groin so that he was covered”, to isolate just one. Late in the book we encounter the minor character Bucca, who is supposedly Cornish; in order to prove that he’s Cornish his speech is rendered in dialect that veers excitingly between Irish, Scottish, Yorkshire/Lancashire and who knows what else. And so on.

There are also, unless this reader is being even stupider than usual, some puzzling inconsistencies. To select a single example, on page 25 we’re clearly told that the penalty for a Raven (a member of the Queen’s personal guards) who touches — I assume this is a euphemism — any woman other than the Queen is death by torture, yet this is clearly forgotten later on when there is no thought of making it secret from the Queen that our Merry discriminates not one whit against the Raven seconded to her personal entourage.

As stated at the outset, this reviewer has no particular prejudice against reading soft porn (so long as it’s well or at least competently written). There is a point of unease, however, when one begins to sense — probably completely incorrectly — that a text has teetered from consciously created erotica (or attempted erotica) into the writer’s personal masturbatory fantasies. Within fantasy, one strikes that point frequently when reading some of Anne Rice’s early, pseudonymous, overtly erotic novels, such as her Sleeping Beauty sadomasochistic cycle; one runs smack into it as into a brick wall in the works of John Norman; and one encounters it again here. It is almost certainly, as noted, a misleading sense, but that doesn’t make the reading experience any more pleasurable: one squirms not with lasciviousness nor even a delectable feeling of minor guilt, but with sheer embarrassment, as if a stranger had just asked you to fumble through their used underwear.

What, leaving such considerations aside, of the status of A Caress of Shadows as a straightforward fantasy? Well, of course, there’s not much room for yer actual non-erotic fantasy in among all the rest, and most of what there is is pretty mundane stuff: you’ve read these imaginings many times before, drawn as they are from the genre-fantasy writers’ common stockpot. That initial conceit, however — that the denizens of Faerie are the new refugees in an alternate-reality USA — is genuinely a pleasing one. It’s a great pity the rest of the book can’t live up to it.

But then that is perhaps not the purpose of Ms Hamilton or her publishers.

Warm Words and OtherwiseThis 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)



Guest review by John Grant: Bag of Bones by Stephen King

(Hodder & Stoughton, 516 pages, hardback, 1998)

Jo, the wife of successful thriller writer Mike Noonan, dies suddenly and still quite young from a brain aneurysm. In grief, he suffers a dramatic case of writer’s block, but is able to get by for a few years by covertly publishing novels he’d written earlier but never told his publisher about. But then the “spares” run out, and he must, somehow, get his act together to write something new. In desperation, he decides to go to the summer home he and Jo had in a remote part of Maine, a house he hasn’t found the courage to visit since Jo’s death. On arrival he finds that the house, called Sara Laughs in honour of a local turn-of- the-century blues singer called Sara Tidwell, is haunted. Also he meets and falls in love with widowed Mattie Devore and her three- year-old daughter Kyra; Mattie’s vastly wealthy father-in-law Max is determined to get custody of the child, and so Mike steps in to help Mattie fight him through the courts. In so doing, Mike begins to unearth a truly ghastly tale of what happened one summer’s day ninety years ago to Sara Tidwell, and the terrible revenge her spirit has been exacting from the descendants of her murderers.

King has always been a masterful page-turner — even his weakest books are usually immensely readable. But through most of his long career he has rarely aspired to be more than that — which is an observation rather than a criticism, because there’s many a respected literary novelist who could improve his or her art by learning a little of King’s craft. At the same time there has been the feeling that, in books like Rose Madder and Insomnia, King himself has become a little impatient with the self-imposed shackles of “mere” craftsmanship.

With Bag of Bones he’s finally made the breakthrough, and it is as a serious literary novel that this book should be judged. That’s not to say that he has lost any of his ability to tell a spellbinding tale — and this is one of his very best, a stunningly good and often very frightening ghost story that owes much to the tradition of M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu and, to name a modern example, the excellent Jonathan Aycliffe. But what makes this book so intensely gripping is something more than that — and more, too, than the fine, perceptive and often disturbingly funny writing: it is the superb depiction of character and situation. We care about these people; we share with Mike Noonan his slow discovery that his loss of Jo is at an even more profound depth than he or we could have imagined, that she was a finer person than even he had realized; and lordie do we come to share his growing love for Mattie and the child Kyra. And all this is achieved through the use of a very difficult narrational gambit: although Mike is our narrator, our storyspinner, and thus is present on every page and is the eye through which we see, he is not in fact the central character — that role is shared by Kyra and Mattie and by the dead Jo and Sara, for this is in part also a novel about women and the male perception of them.

There are various undercurrents in this novel. Inevitably there are aspects of metafiction about it — for King is like his creation a successful novelist (more successful and more prolific than Mike Noonan) and the very title is drawn from a remark by Thomas Hardy to the effect that even the finest fictional character is but a bag of bones when compared to a real person. If King falters anywhere, it is in the handling of these metafictional aspects — a slight failure, seemingly born of timidity. But the most important underlyer is the sense of and deep appreciation of human loss: Jo is lost to Mike and the world, as even more profoundly is Sara, whose songs are available only through interpretations at the hands of others, for no recordings of her survive. Mike’s ability to write is lost — ask any writer and you’ll be told that this is a true nightmare of the soul. The only loss that can be averted is that of the child Kyra, who is sought by both the living and the dead.

This is a very powerful book, and a fine example of what the late-twentieth-century novel can do. And should be doing more often.

Warm Words and OtherwiseThis review, first published by Samhain, 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)



Guest review by John Grant: Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies by David L Robb

(Prometheus, 384 pages, hardback, 2004)

This is an important book, and thoroughly to be recommended. It is also, unfortunately, a flawed one in terms of its presentation, filled with clumsy writing and egregious repetition: it reads like a collection of essays written, rather hurriedly, at different times, and it’s somewhat shameful that neither the author nor his editor made the least effort to knit these into a coherent text.

The appeal to moviemakers of enlisting the cooperation of the military is obvious. For a fraction of the outlay that would otherwise be incurred, the military can lay on helicopters, battleships, nuclear subs and a cast of thousands. The peril of accepting such a huge cash savings — which may very well represent the difference between a movie being made and not made — is equally obvious. The non-cash price the military demands is script-approval, more usually euphemized as “technical advice.” In Operation Hollywood Robb draws up an almost mind-numbingly wide-ranging roster of movies that have been substantially — often absurdly — compromised by the military’s refusal to support enterprises that they feel fail to convey “the right message.”

The ethical core of the book is summed up in a few lines about two-thirds of the way through:

And to get an idea of what’s been lost by the sanitizing of hundreds of movies that the Pentagon has assisted, imagine what the films that the Pentagon refused to assist might have been like if they’d been subjected to the military’s approval process. Imagine a “toned down” Jack D. Ripper, the mad army general obsessed with the purity of bodily fluids in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; or a “more positive” Colonel Kurtz, the insane renegade army officer in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; or a less bitter Ron Kovic, the paralyzed hero-turned-war resister in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July; or a less goofy, more soldierlike Forrest Gump [italics sic]. How would we have known if the producers of these films had toned down their characters in order to get the military’s cooperation? And how would we have known that our movie-memories had been tampered with?

The answer, of course, is that we wouldn’t, without the help of assiduous researchers like Robb. A case in point is the relatively recent movie Windtalkers, concerning the so- called Code Talkers, Navajos enlisted to serve alongside Marines in World War II because their language was totally incomprehensible to the Japanese and, as an evolved rather than a created “code”, was invulnerable to decryption techniques. I saw this movie after I’d read Robb’s book; the person I was with had not. My companion assumed the historical underpinning of the movie was, aside from the obvious Hollywood-blockbuster conventions, fairly accurate, and was quite horrified to find this wasn’t the case. In particular, among countless smaller changes, institutionalized racism toward the Navajos was downplayed (there is a single violently racist Marine, and even he “learns better” as the movie progresses), and, most specific of all, the instruction given to each Marine teamed with a Navajo that, should his charge fall into enemy hands, his imperative duty was to kill him, in case the “code” could be tortured out of him, was almost completely written out of the script: it’s still there in tacit form, but it’s no longer an important dynamic of the plot.

The list of movies that have been similarly tampered with is a long one, as noted, and it spans decades up to the present. Even a listing of the more famous titles would be too long to reproduce here. I can guarantee, though, that many of your illusions about the integrity of your favorite movies will be shattered.

Also of interest are the tales Robb recounts of directors and producers who simply refused to be cowed by the military “script advisers” and who either scrapped their projects altogether or had confidence enough in their own box-office draw to be able to eschew the Pentagon’s cooperation. Most such moviemakers have been well established figures, for obvious reasons, but not all. I was particularly struck by the story of Cy Roth, widely regarded as one of the worst low-budget moviemakers of all time, the qualities of whose three completed movies can be judged by the title of one of them: Fire Maidens from Outer Space. In 1953 he wanted to make a serious movie called Air Strike about racism aboard a World War II aircraft carrier. The Pentagon not only refused all cooperation — how preposterous to countenance that there might be racism in the military! — but also went out of their way to try to insure the movie never saw the light of day: at one point they even enlisted the FBI to see if charges of Communism against Roth might be made to stick. Despite such persecution, Roth refused to lie down and shut up, and finally he made his movie. By all accounts it’s a rotten movie — and not just because of the lack of cooperation — but one cannot help admiring his courage and gumption in managing to make it against all the very considerable odds.

An additional point of interest in Operation Hollywood is that Robb has managed to obtain copies of various bits of correspondence between moviemakers and the military censors, and these he reproduces in facsimile form. He also presents a convincing counter-argument to the defense of the Pentagon’s attitude that refusing cooperation is different from censorship in that no one would accuse (say) Exxon of censorship if it refused to assist a movie fiercely critical of the company’s approach to clearing up oil spills. Robb points out forcefully that, unlike Exxon, the Pentagon is not a private company: it is in fact the property of the US public, and thus has no moral license whatsoever to rewrite its own and US history for the purpose of keeping that public in the dark.

Despite the irritation — even exasperation — generated by the total dereliction of auctorial and editorial duty in the preparation of its text, Operation Hollywood is one of those must-read books: no understanding of movie history is remotely complete without it. It certainly deserves far more attention than it so far seems to have received.

Warm Words and OtherwiseThis review, first published by Crescent Blues, 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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