Category Archives: reviews

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

(Prometheus, 371 pages, hardback, 2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warm Words & Otherwise is available from:

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warm Words & Otherwise is available from:

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



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

(Ballantine, 326 pages, hardback, 2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He spoke softly. “Yes, my Queen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warm Words & Otherwise is available from:

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warm Words & Otherwise is available from:

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



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

(Prometheus, 384 pages, hardback, 2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warm Words & Otherwise is available from:

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



A book of reviews? Really?

That was pretty much my first reaction when John Grant approached me with the idea of putting together a collection of his book reviews. Who on earth would buy such a thing?

Warm Words and OtherwiseBut then I started to think a bit more. Back in the ten years I ran the infinity plus online genre showcase, John was one of my favourite reviewers. (I know that, as with our children, editors shouldn’t really have favourites, but you just know we all do.) He was productive and timely, for a start, which is always helpful. But far more than that, his reviews were eloquent, witty, opinionated and, above all, great reads. While most of our reviews were only a few hundred words long, John’s were often over a thousand words in length, articulate and entertaining essays that were filled with his genuine passion for good writing.

Another thing I liked about John’s contributions was the way he took books at face value. One week he might review Stephen King or Jeanette Winterson, and the next a book effectively self-published by iUniverse. He didn’t care about the names on the cover: it was all about the words. And he uncovered some real gems by taking such an egalitarian stance.

He did also stumble across some some turkeys, from large publishers and small, name writers and newcomers. And these turkeys were dissected, often with thoroughly scathing wit: never harsh or ridiculing, John analysed just what it was that made some books work and some choke, in an object lesson to any aspiring writer who wants to understand their craft, and their industry.

This is starting to sound like a sales pitch. And while I’d be the first to confess that I’m drawing your attention to the book in the hope that you will buy it (over 150,000 words, covering SF, fantasy, horror, crime and more, for a mere $1.99? how could you not?), my primary intention here is to set out my journey from “Really? You must be mad…” to “Aw, go on then,” to thinking that, actually, if enough of the right people read this book it would be a genuine contender for things like the British Science Fiction Award’s non-fiction category.

It’s funny. It’s breathtakingly intelligent and well-informed. It strikes that perfect balance between serious and a great read.

I made that journey from “Really?” to “what a great idea” quite quickly, and I’m sure a lot of other people will too.

John Grant’s Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviewsinfinity plus ebooks’ first venture into non-fiction is now available from the usual suspects:

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

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 of The 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.


Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

As I’ve said before, I’m not planning to post lots of reviews here (see Criticality for my reviews), but occasionally I have one that’s lost its natural home. This is another review that was dropped from The Guardian as another reviewer had also covered it (these mix-ups happen sometimes). So here we go:

Paolo Bacigalupi’s first novel, The Windup Girl, was one of the most acclaimed science-fiction novels of recent years, winning five major awards and immediately identifying the author as one of the hottest names in the field. Ship Breaker, while less striking than Bacigalupi’s debut, shows that the acclaim was not misplaced, and has itself been shortlisted for the US National Book Award.

Set in a dystopian and grimly believable post Global Warming future, Ship Breaker is the story of Nailer, a teenager who works the salvage crews on the US Gulf coast, stripping wire from oil tankers stranded and wrecked among flooded cities. It’s a life where no one is worth keeping if they don’t make a profit, and Nailer has no future when he outgrows the cramped spaces and is no longer any use on the gangs.

In many ways, Ship Breaker is a very straightforward adventure novel which limps a little as it approaches its climax in what effectively becomes a long chase. The novel is lifted above the crowd by the author’s deftly constructed and quite awful future, and by the way he can paint the most vivid and memorable characters and settings with minimal brushstrokes.


Hold the front page: Eric Brown featured on Amazon UK’s Kindle home page

Angels of Life and Death on the Amazon UK Kindle home page

Angels of Life and Death on the Amazon UK Kindle home page, July 2011

Nice to see Eric Brown’s excellent collection of short stories Angels of Life and Death included in the selection of featured titles displayed on Amazon UK’s Kindle ebooks home page. This has been our best-selling title, and getting this kind of presence on Amazon’s site is yet another indication that our books are having an impact.

Recently, while I’ve been working on my current novel, I’ve stepped back from a lot of the active marketing for infinity plus ebooks. Partly this was to let me concentrate on the novel, and partly an experiment to see what impact shouting – and not shouting – about our books has. Sales have definitely eased off during this period, and I think this confirms for me that it’s all very well producing high-quality books, but  the big challenge is to make readers aware that they exist. Hopefully this kind of thing will pick up momentum, band one part of this that’s especially rewarding to see is where our readers help to spread the word too, with retweets, reviews, blog posts and so on. We’re already seeing reviews build up on Amazon and Smashwords for books like Iain Rowan’s Nowhere To Go, and hopefully this is a sign that we’re continuing to steadily build.

In the next couple of months we have another batch of ebooks to release, including our first non-fiction title. More on these soon.

But in the mean time, thanks for helping us to get established and grow. It’s great to see what progress we’ve made.


Mentions

Nice round-up of the latest infinity plus titles over at Locus.

And a great reader review of Neil Williamson’s The Ephemera at Smashwords (this is our best-selling title at that site): “Williamson is one of the best Scottish short story writers alive today… There isn’t a poor story here.”


The cozy world of reviewing

Publishing is a small world. Once you’ve been knocking around for a few years, you tend to have at least a passing acquaintance with most of the people in your branch of the business. So what do you do when it comes to reviewing? Should we still review each other’s books?

It’s a decision all reviewers have to make at some stage, and I know more than one writer who has given up reviewing for this reason. Others of us draw the line at different points. My own line is that there are one or two writers I’m very close to – we collaborate, we’re good friends, we crit each other’s work before publicaton – where it would just be wrong for me to review their work; no matter how objective my review was, the perception may be otherwise. But for most, I carry on and review; I work hard to be objective, and if a book deserves criticism then it gets it. Blunt reviews of a weak book from someone you know can be hard for the author to handle, but I think most writers accept and appreciate that approach.

My most recent example is copied below, a review of Andre Jute and Andrew McCoy’s critique of the Stieg Larsson phenomenon. As you can read in the review, I’ve used Jute’s thriller-writing guide in my teaching, and it was useful to me back when I was starting out in writing. I recently stumbled upon the author on an Amazon forum, where we both commented on a thread (I can’t remember what it was); we exchanged emails, and then Andre invited me to write a guest entry about infinity plus ebooks on his blog. All very cozy, but hey, publishing is – generally – an incredibly friendly business. My reviewing Andre’s latest work could easily be seen as a quid pro quo arrangement, but then we’re back to my line-drawing: I’m not going to avoid reviewing (most) books just because I have some kind of acquaintance with the author; and equally, I’m not going to pull punches just because a favour may be owed or because someone has a nice smile or whatever; and another equally, I’m not going to be over-critical because I may disagree with an author’s views on an unrelated topic (as I do on environmental issues with Andre, but that’s another matter entirely).

Jute and McCoy’s book on Larsson is definitely flawed, and the ranting tone of parts can grate, but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a no-holds look at publishing in the 21st century. One of the wonders of electronic publishing is that it’s so fast: now in April 2011, this book is as current as it gets, reporting on events and figures from the turn of the year. No 18-month wait for it to appear in print and then be reporting on what, by then, is history.

So here is the review, in full:

My first encounter with Andre Jute’s work was way back in the 1980s when I was working my way towards writing my first novel, when I read his excellent Writing a Thriller. I devoured any writing book I could find at that time and, to be frank, most were regurgitated pap. Jute’s was different. Much like John Braine’s book on novel-writing, Jute took a strongly individual approach, but unlike Braine he was more open to variation: rather than “this is the way to do it and if you don’t like it, stop reading” of Braine, Jute showed alternative approaches, was open to people doing it their way and, above all, applied a sharp intelligence to the whole process of novel-writing.

In The Larsson Scandal, Jute (with collaborator Andrew McCoy) turns that analytical intelligence to the recent phenomenon of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The Larsson Scandal is a work of criticism, but more, it’s a study of how a collision of circumstance can lead to an entertainment industry happening, with books that sell by the million and high-budget movies to follow. While The Larsson Scandal is worth reading for the criticism alone, for me it was the story of the story that made this book required reading for anyone with an interesting in the publishing industry.

It should be acknowledged that criticism, by its nature, focuses on the negative, and at times this book is bitingly critical. Jute and McCoy do state often that they are fans of Larsson’s work, but inevitably they focus on its shortcomings. This shouldn’t be off-putting to admirers of Larsson – far better a healthy debate than yet more hagiography. Indeed, despite the critical tone of this book, an indicator of the authors’ achievement is that, although I haven’t read the Larsson originals, this work leaves me more eager to seek them out, rather than putting me off.

The weakest aspect of this book is its tone, lapsing at times into rant mode, although this should perhaps be regarded more as a rhetorical device. It grates a little that benificiaries of Larsson’s estate, his brother and father, are barely examined other than us having to trust that they are basically decent types, while others in the story get a far closer critical examination. The at times sweeping dismissal of “politically correct ‘literary’ criticism” and references to “the sly Larsson” and similar undermine the argument at times, too: I’d far rather be allowed to reach those conclusions myself than have them repeatedly labelled as such.

Those minor criticisms aside, The Larsson Scandal is a fascinating study of how publishing does and doesn’t work. I use Jute’s Writing a Thriller when I teach university novel-writing classes, and now I’m planning to use The Larsson Scandal alongside that for its insight into the publishing world.


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