Category Archives: review

A good reading year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Murder by the Book by Eric Brown: a review

Murder by the Book by Eric Brown

I was lucky enough to be given a free copy of this lovely hardback, and still it cost me twenty quid. That Eric Brown can be a bastard like that.

Murder by the Book, a debut crime novel from a writer who has been publishing book-length fiction for nearly 25 years, winner and shortlistee of many awards, his books and short stories have mainly stuck to his science-fiction roots, straying occasionally into fantasy and horror (of the gentle, psychological variety), and a wide variety of fiction for teenagers and younger.

Murder by the Book is the first Langham and Dupre mystery. Don Langham is a middlingly successful 1950s crime novelist, Maria Dupre is the assistant to Langham’s delightfully over the top literary agent Charles Elder. The two are drawn together when Elder becomes the subject of a blackmail plot, with an extortionist demanding payment for some dodgy photos of Elder’s dalliance with a young man at a local swimming pool.

Before long blackmail turns to something far more sinister as it becomes clear that a recent flurry of deaths among London’s crime-writing fraternity are not the accidents they had first appeared. Murder by the Book is a cracking crime novel, with satisfying twists and turns along the way, but what is most striking – and engaging – about the book is the affectionate portrayal of 1950s London and the crime-writing community of the time. Much like Midsomer Murders, Brown has turned in a highly enjoyable crime romp that never takes itself too seriously, but always with a straight face; and also much like Midsomer Murders victims are soon dropping like flies.

Occasionally rushed, where a little more delay might have heightened the tension, Murder by the Book is the most fun I’ve had within the pages of a book in a long time, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next in the series.

That twenty quid? About a third of the way into reading the book I lost my copy, and I was enjoying it so much I had to buy a replacement. It’s very frustrating that such a good book is priced so highly (in both its hardback and ebook editions), but I still blame Eric for writing such a good book that I just had to cough up at Amazon. That Eric Brown: he’s wasted on science fiction.

Murder by the Book is published by Severn House (the price of the hardback has since dropped to £14.99) and is available at Amazon, etc.


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)



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