Monthly Archives: November 2011

Essential writing tools

Not so long ago, the answer would have been simple: all a writer needed was a good stout notebook and an Underwood typewriter. But now, where would we be without our laptops and smartphones, our iPads and internet-anywhere? Surely you can’t put words together in a coherent and entertaining manner without all these essential tools of the trade?

That’s bollocks, of course. Give a decent writer a pen and a cleanish surface and he or she would be able to do their job. But there are lots of tools nowadays that can make the job easier. And if it’s easier, hopefully it means we’re freed up to concentrate on writing better.

So for me, in no particular order, these are the tools that I could certainly live without, but would really rather not.

  1. Dropbox
    I do like this. Working on my main writing laptop, I save a file and instantly it’s saved to the cloud via Dropbox: instant back-up, instant availability from anywhere on the internet (as long as you have the account details). Switch to a different machine, say my day-job office PC one lunchbreak, and I can open up that file, work on it, and save it back to the cloud. I can open the file via the Dropbox app on my smartphone and see the latest version. Screw up, and Dropbox saves older versions I can revert to. No one should rely on a single back-up solution, but the Dropbox cloud makes backing up easy and instantaneous. They even give you plenty of space free to start with, and you can share folders with others. My only reservations are: security concerns (are my files really safe out there?); and the way Dropbox can sometimes chew up CPU resources when it’s running in the background, so much so that Windows Explorer becomes unusable and I have to close Dropbox down to allow me to work again.
  2. TextPad
    I use Word for my writing. I’ve used it for years, I know how to make it do what I want, and so I have no reason to change. A lot of my work involves writing HTML and other code for websites and ebook production, though, and Word just isn’t the best tool for this. There are lots of programs out there you can use, but I always come back to TextPad: a nice, clean text editor that makes it easy for me to streamline the often laborious process of, for example, stripping out all the junk-code Word generates when it saves an HTML file.
  3. Dedicated writing software
    I’ve dabbled, but I’m not really one for tools like Scrivener or Ywrite: story-writing programs developed specifically to suit the way writers work, incorporating story-planning, note-management, etc, into the more basic act of processing lots of words. As I say, I use Word and am happy that it does what I need, but I’m still open to the possibility that these specialist tools may offer a better way; I know a lot of successful authors who swear by them, and that’s enough to convince me of these tools’ merits.
  4. My netbook
    Mobile computing has made such a difference to my writing life. I have a pretty demanding day job, and often find that I have to fit my writing into odd slivers of time, and I need to take every opportunity I can. Only a couple of days ago, I found myself stuck in a motorway traffic jam for three hours, with the road completely blocked. While our driver took the chance to catch up on some sleep, I whipped my netbook out and worked on a story. Laptops are great, but a netbook is so much more transportable, and so I’m much more likely to have one with me when I’m out and about. Others might prefer a tablet like the iPad, but I’m happy with my netbook for now.
  5. iPhone
    Until a year ago, I kept all my notes in a hardback Moleskine notebook and I loved it. It made me feel like a real writer. But when I got my iPhone all that changed. Without planning to, I realised that I had stopped using the notebooks; instead I used the memo feature on my phone. It’s so handy. Now I have several memo files on the go at once: a to do list, notes for stories I’m working on, a general ideas file. When the memos get a bit long and I start to get paranoid about what would happen to them if I lost my phone, I can mail them to myself with the press of a button. It’s more than just a replacement notebook, though. With all my writing, editing and publishing activities I always have lots of projects on the go at any one time. I hate to be a slave to my email, but it’s great to be able to stay in touch with people when I’m on the road – literally, as I was in that traffic jam the other night!
  6. Social media: keeping in touch
    Not so long ago, writing was a solitary activity: we authors shut ourselves away for hours on end and might not talk to another human being for the entire working day. Now? Now I’m on Twitter and Facebook, I’m checking my email, I’m chatting to people on Messenger. It can be a tremendous distraction, of course, but it can also be hugely energising and inspiring. Writing now is a community activity: we may still shut ourselves away to write, but whenever we want a water-cooler moment we can switch to see who’s online and, blimey, interact.
  7. The wired world
    Near-constant broadband connectivity has hugely transformed how I work. Until a few years ago, even the shortest first draft would generate a scrawled list of research notes; much as I might research before embarking on that draft, there would always be gaps emerging as I wrote, blanks in the manuscript that I would need to fill in later with some detail, queries scribbled in the margins, facts to check. Now? Every time I hit one of those points I just switch to a web browser and Google it. Increasingly, you see authors tweeting requests for help when they hit these sticking points. Yes, it interrupts the flow, but for me, getting things right at that stage makes a big difference in the way I write: if the world is more vivid, less filled with gaps and queries, as I write, then I believe that it comes across as a richer, more fully-formed world to the reader, too.
  8. Kindles and other e-readers
    Perhaps not a writing tool, as such, but still a significant part of my armoury. I first came to e-readers when I was establishing infinity plus ebooks: I recognised the growing market and taught myself what I needed to know in order to start exploring it. And then I was given a Kindle. It completely changed my reading habits. I can take my Kindle on a trip and have access to any book I want – if I don’t have it with me, I can read the same ebook on my phone and it’ll synch with my Kindle so I never lose my place. When I’m reviewing, I greatly prefer to get a Kindle format book, so I can make notes in the text as I go along. I can even convert a story draft to Kindle format and read, and annotate, it on the go. Indeed, perhaps the boom in ebooks is starting to change my approach to writing, too. E-readers encourage people to dip into a book… and then out again. They encourage people to sample for free before they buy. Now, it’s even more important to hook readers, and keep them hooked. But equally, there are opportunities to write different kinds of books: a single short story can be packaged as a cheap ebook; story collections become viable, or shorter bundles of three or four stories; novellas and short novels have a revived market again; and there’s scope to experiment, as I’m doing with a kind of near-future, mosaic-structured, short novel I’m working on in between projects. So yes, my Kindle is part of the toolkit, and I’m still learning new ways to use it.
  9. A changed attitude
    Okay, maybe we’re straying away from actual tools here, but give me a chance. What I mean by including this is the way my whole approach to the publishing business has changed in recent years. Twenty years ago, when I was setting out, authors wrote, and only a small proportion actually treated their work as a business. Now, it’s a rare writer who doesn’t get involved in every aspect of publishing. Whether we’re published by the major commercial publishers or self-publishing – or far more typically, working with a complete portfolio of publishing modes within that spectrum – authors should be involved in marketing, promoting, designing and brand-building, as well as actually committing words to paper. That might sound brash and unartistic to many, and put like that, it does to me, too: but look around at your favourite authors – how many aren’t tweeting, Facebooking, publishing in a variety of ways, etc? You don’t look down on them for doing so: that’s how it is to be a writer in the early 21st century. And it’s exhilarating, and fun, and endlessly fascinating to be a part of. I’m writing some of my best fiction these days, and at least partly I put that down to the new energy that’s around in publishing now. So yes, attitude is a tool.

That’s my list. Have I missed anything off? Tools that work for other writers? I’d love to hear what works and doesn’t work for you. My essential toolkit today is very different to the one I would have listed even five years ago. In five years’ time it’ll be different again, because I’ll be learning from everyone else and adapting as the environment changes. And hopefully I’ll still be writing my best work, just as I am now.

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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)



New infinity plus singles from Lisa Tuttle, John Grant, Eric Brown, Kit Reed and Anna Tambour

Five more infinity plus singles for November:

The Life Business by John Grant The Life Business
by John Grant ($0.99/£0.86)
infinity plus singles #6 [Nov 2011]

With astonishing power, award-winning author John Grant portrays the human facility to falsify history, using as his backdrop the beginnings of the late-20th-century troubles in Northern Ireland, as an unwitting mainland schoolboy finds himself caught up in a violence he barely understands.

BUY NOW: from Amazon USAmazon UKSmashwords

The Bone Flute by Lisa Tuttle The Bone Flute
by Lisa Tuttle ($0.99/£0.86)
infinity plus singles #7 [Nov 2011]

Venn, a fickle and restless young musician, is drawn to the “lost planet” of Habille where, it is said, human nature has changed, and love once experienced can never die. In an afterword written especially for this edition, Lisa Tuttle explains her controversial decision to refuse the Nebula Award for this story.

BUY NOW: from Amazon USAmazon UKSmashwords

The Death of Cassandra Quebec by Eric Brown The Death of Cassandra Quebec
by Eric Brown ($0.99/£0.86)
infinity plus singles #8 [Nov 2011]

Cassandra Quebec: an artist who had shown the world her soul. At the height of her career she was the world’s most celebrated artist; a year later she was dead. And now… her death has become a work of art. Powerful and clever science fiction from the two times winner of the BSFA short story award.

BUY NOW: from Amazon USAmazon UKSmashwords

Playmate by Kit Reed Playmate
by Kit Reed ($0.99/£0.86)
infinity plus singles #9 [Nov 2011]

The little boy next door is just so good. In fact, he’s pretty much perfect. And he has a strangely powerful influence on Danny. A disturbing story from an author whose short fiction has been described by scifi.com as “Brilliant on all levels”.

BUY NOW: from Amazon USAmazon UKSmashwords

Picking Blueberries by Anna Tambour Picking Blueberries
by Anna Tambour ($0.99/£0.86)
infinity plus singles #10 [Nov 2011]

A powerfully evocative portrait of an alternative community in the early 1970s, told with a child’s-eye simplicity by a young resident. Short fiction from an author whose work has been described by World Fantasy Award-winner Jeff VanderMeer as “Rapacious, intelligent and witty”.

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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)



Guest blog: Stephen Palmer – Muezzinland and the music of Aphrica

I wrote the first draft of Muezzinland in 1998. At the time I was working at the University Of Luton, which had a very good library – I would spend an hour a day there researching the novel, and having great fun doing it. At home, I had a book by Jan Knappert called African Mythology, which was the perfect resource for the various African folk tales that the novel makes use of. Muezzinland takes place in the Africa of 2130 (Aphrica, as I called it), where the “cyberspace” of the world has advanced from a neutral version to one with its own cultural flavour. In this world it is possible for a locally relevant folk tale to co-opt an unwary traveller: as Gwyneth Jones memorably put it in her review, “like awful pop-up adverts that take over your screen.”

The other research I did was to listen to lots of African music. I was already a fan of this kind of music, particularly the Arab influenced music of North Africa, but I liked West African music too. In this guest blog I want to signpost six African albums that I’ve enjoyed over the last few years.

Staff Benda Bilili Tres Tres FortThe first is Tres Tres Fort by Staff Benda Bilili. This group of paraplegic, wheelchair based Central African musicians have acquired exalted status in the last year or so because of their extraordinary story, but I bought the album when it came out, encouraged by the adulatory reviews. And it really is an incredible album, made by extraordinary people. All the members of the group effectively live as homeless people in Kinshasa, which is in the Democratic Republic Of Congo – a country beset by evils, as anybody who’s read Tim Butcher’s Blood River will know. But the band were “discovered” by Vincent Kenis of Crammed Discs, who went on to record the album in the vicinity of the Jardin Zoologique, where the group live, though there are a few overdubs recorded in somebody’s front room. The tracks are all joyous and wonderful, and I can’t recommend the album highly enough.

Toumani Diabate Mande VariationsIn 2008 a groundbreaking album was released by Toumani Diabaté, one of the acknowledged masters of the kora, the prime African stringed instrument. (I used the kora symbollically in chapter five of Muezzinland, played by the vodou-enhanced Baron Samedi.) Diabaté’s album was called The Mandé Variations, and it is a work played by the great man alone. Listening to it, I sometimes can’t believe this is one man playing one instrument, so fast and complex is the playing. It’s mesmerising, and makes for great listening.

Returning to Kinshasa and Crammed Discs, one of the albums I bought a while after it came out was Congotronics by Konono No1. The musicians on this album featured on Bjork’s Volta, and it was hearing her music, and reading the reviews of how Congotronics was recorded, that made me want to buy it. Konono No1 first appeared in the ‘seventies in the Bazombo region near the Congo/Angola border, but their debut had to wait until 2004 to get a release. Most of the musicians on the album use the African thumb piano, the likembe, elsewhere known as the mbira, and the music is full-on African trance, played and recorded through microphones and amplifiers scavenged from old equipment (including parts from ruined cars). It’s an astonishing sound world.

konono no1 Congotronics tinariwen aman iman

Travelling now to Saharan North Africa, one of the best known musical exports of that area is Tinariwen, whose politically charged desert-blues, as it has come to be known, is popular all over the Western world. The band play live and have recorded quite a few albums, one of the best being Aman Iman: Water Is Life, which takes their sound to new, electric levels. The band are seven in number but are often augmented by local singers, and they sing in their native Tamashek language, some of their work being rooted in the freedom struggle of the Touareg people. Other tracks exhort the Touareg to put aside tribal rivalries and unite to better cope with the modern world, or as with Izarharh Tenere to celebrate the beauty of the desert. The music is simply entrancing. issa bagayogo mali kouraThe album was recorded in Bamako, Mali, a country that has for some time inspired my imagination, not least Timbuktu, where two central chapters of Muezzinland are set.

Also recorded in and around Bamako (on the Bamako Mobile Studio) was Mali Koura by Issa Bagayogo, a Malian who has brought the sound of the n’goni to the Western world. Released on the forward thinking Six Degrees record label, the album merges traditional Malian music and sounds with synthesizers and modern production techniques. It’s a great mixture. Sometimes, augmenting traditional music with Western sounds doesn’t work, but on this album the fusion is fabulous.

Finally on this brief tour I come to Fondo by Vieux Farka Touré, who is the son of world-famous Ali Farka Touré, the much loved musical maestro. Touré senior was globally feted, and worked with some major Western stars, not least Ry Cooder on the Grammy award-winning Talking Timbuktu. vieux farka toure fondoHis son Vieux had very big boots to fill following Ali Farka’s death from bone cancer in 2006, but on Fondo he certainly does. He has a distinctive guitar sound, at once slender, slinky and soca-infused, that makes all the self-penned tracks on the album a delight to listen to. There’s also one traditional song, the Timbuktu classic Walé, and a guest appearance by Toumani Diabaté, so this album comes highly recommended from me.

I hope that this mini tour encourages you to explore the wonderful African music that is out there. You won’t regret it!

~

Muezzinland by Stephen Palmer

Muezzinland by Stephen Palmer

Life has changed in the mid 22nd century. The aether is a telepathic cyberspace. Biochips augment human brains. AIs, concepts, even symbols can be dangerous. Mnada is heir to the Ghanaian throne, yet something has been done to her brain that has made her insane, something to send her fleeing north across jungle and desert towards the mysterious place called Muezzinland.

Available from:

amazon.com (Kindle format, $2.99)
amazon.co.uk (Kindle format, £2.15)
Smashwords (various formats, including epub, mobi, Sony and PDF, $2.99)

“…a tour de force in imagining possibilities that lie beyond our information age… If you enjoy the full immersion experience of neo-magic, you’ll [like] Muezzinland.”
— Gwyneth JonesNew York Review Of SF

“…succeeds when many other similar attempts to fuse the mythic and the modern fail… in Muezzinland, the hybrid thrives, creating a compelling and cohesive vision… It’s an unusual and successful combination.”
— Matrix magazine, BSFA

“While the plot can be read as a relatively straightforward thriller, the book as a whole is considerably more than this. It succeeds in integrating the elements of myth and high technology, producing something of a hybrid that feels right.”
— Vector magazine, BSFA


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