I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, horror and slipstream reviews for the Guardian newspaper for almost a decade, and before that infrequent pieces for Infinity Plus, Paperback Inferno and Vector. In that time I’ve covered hundreds of books, from the excellent to the execrable, and all shades in between. For the most part the work has been a pleasure – and the greatest pleasure, perhaps, has been discovering writers I would not normally have come across. On the downside are the very few books so bad that they undermined my faith in the written word (they shall remain nameless).

It’s far easier to write a review of a book you like. You’re enthusiastic, for one thing; you have more to say about the work. It’s far, far harder to write a negative review of a bad book, a book which was obviously hacked out by a cynical writer for nothing more than the pay cheque. (That, as opposed to a bad book written in all honesty by a writer trying their best, but who just isn’t very good. I can accept that, and what I do when one of these creatures come along is, more often than not, ignore it).

Which brings me to the title of this piece – a word I’ve never used, and could only use in this context by ring-fencing it with quotes. “Meh” is a lazy, meaningless word that’s been cropping up with nauseating regularity of late. I believe it had its origins in America, but I’ve noticed that Brits and others have been using it too.

I first noticed it when someone sent me the link to a page on Goodreads with review of my novel The Kings of Eternity. Now Goodreads is a good idea, a forum for book-lovers to express their opinions on books they love (and hate). It contains some good, perceptive analysis, and the usual amount of ill-thought-out dross. (I recall someone criticising Aldous Huxley’s novel Those Barren Leaves for being too old-fashioned! This novel was written in the early 1920s!) In general the reviews of The Kings of Eternity were positive, but one fellow had a one word response to the novel I’d spent ten years, on and off, writing, and that one word was “Meh”.

To me, that response strikes me as a signifier of intellectual bankruptcy. If you have nothing to say about a book, then say nothing. If you disliked a book so much that you’d like to dismiss it, then have the courtesy to do so in a thoughtful, reasoned manner. Your criticism, if perceptive and constructive, might even have a beneficial effect on the writer – he or she might learn from it, might be influenced not to repeat their mistakes, might even write a better book in consequence next time.

Farcical, stultifying, one word-dismissals of a book might be a cathartic release for the intellectually challenged, but that’s all they do achieve: point up the mind-set of the perpetrator rather than the qualities – or lack of – of the book in question.


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Short Stories

th_02e3658482b7a537b889b02165923b2f_lightspeed_68_january_2016My latest short story, written with Keith Brooke, “Beyond the Heliopause”, is out now in Lightspeed magazine. It’s the tale of one woman’s discovery of something very strange lurking on the edge of the solar system. More information about Lightspeed here.

“The Ice Garden” should be appearing in the anthology Improbable Botany, edited by Gary Dalkin, in February.

“Starship Coda”, the ten thousand word wrap-up of the Starship Season series, will appear as a chap book this Easter from PS Publishing. Set ten years after the events depicted in the final volume of the quartet, Starship Spring, it recounts what happens when David Conway is visited by his ex-wife on the colony world of Chalcedony, Delta Pavonis.

Microcosms, a collection of short-short stories, will appear from Infinity Plus Books later this year. It will contain forty short-shorts, twenty by Tony Ballantyne and as many by me.

On the novella front, I’ve just submitted the third Telemass novella, Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II, to PS Publishing. It will be out later this year.

I’ve recently had three short stories appear at Penny Shorts, here.



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Shared Worlds

weird-space-the-baba-yaga-9781781083642I’ve never subscribed to the idea that writing is a solitary profession. (The notion is all part of the romantic idealism fostered, way back, by the Pre-Raphaelites, taken up by Wilde, Swinburne, Pater and that crowd, and carried into the mid-twentieth century by Wolfe and her ilk. It goes hand in hand with those other untruths: that one should suffer for one’s art, and that writers are prone to ‘blocks’).

I’ve had jobs which are for more lonely than that of a freelance writer. Trying working a night-shift in an empty Youth Hostel, for example, or as the sole despatch clerk in a cavernous warehouse.

My working day starts around nine, after I’ve walked the dog and nattered to fellow dog-owners. I write for a couple of hours, then take the importunate hound out for another constitutional. After a quick lunch, I do another two, two-and-a-half hours, and that’s the writing day done. By then my daughter is home from school, and a little later my wife arrives home from work. I rarely write at the weekends these days, so Saturday and Sunday I lead the life of a relatively normal human being. It’s not a lonely life.

As for suffering for one’s art, or craft… I favour the down-to-earth pragmatism of the northern school of writers of the ’fifties and early ’sixties: writers like Sillitoe and Barstow, Hines and Storey, etc. They were working-class writers whose subject was working-class life, and they were grounded in an (often) protestant work-ethic and the northern ethos of ‘not getting above thee self’. To them, writing was a job of work; you got on with it without fuss or palaver, and certainly without the immodesty of assuming that your words were immortal. If you like, they endured conditions because that was what fate had handed them, and then they wrote about it.

Which is a long-winded way round to getting to the point: writing certainly isn’t a lonely profession when you’re the creator of what will become a shared world: in my case, Weird Space.

Way back in 2010 Jon Oliver at Abaddon Books approached me about creating a background universe for a series of action adventure space opera novels. There were to be strange cults, aliens, telepaths, and Lovecraftian monsters from another dimension. I melded these into a far-future human-based expansion, ruled by a fascistic government which kept a draconian militaristic control on the many planets within their domain. Next door to the Expansion space is Vetch territory. The Vetch are bellicose aliens who, before the series opens, ethnically-cleansed an area of human-inhabited planets in Vetch space. But beyond Vetch space is the Devil’s Nebula, where the Weird – the aliens from another dimension – first manifest themselves.

The Weird are not only weird – creatures who come in many and various monstrous forms – but they’re implacable and out to ‘consume’ the human race, invading worlds via portals from their dimension.

Part of the fun of writing the first two novels of the series was creating a fascistic human regime and having the central characters coming, in due course, to accept that to defeat the Weird they must work together – and the same will be true of the humans and the Vetch: in following novels they must put their hostilities to one side and co-operate.

This double necessity is exemplified in the third novel in the series, The Baba Yaga,  in which Delia Walker, an analyst in the Expansion Intelligence Bureau, hears about a world in the area of space known as Satan’s Reach where, it is rumoured, Human colonists and the Weird exist side by side in peace…

How could the profession of writing be lonely when I created a universe and handed the creative baton on to a writer as accomplished, and innovative, as Una McCormack? We had a couple of meetings before Una put pen to paper, fleshing out the background, discussing possible directions the story could take, and contemplating plot-lines. The fourth book, by Una, will follow on from the characters and action of third – and I for one can’t wait to see in which direction she takes the story of the Weird.

And after that, Una will hand the baton on to another writer, who will bring his or her creative ability to the nasty, vicious, far-future that sprang into being in my head over five years ago – and I hope, in some way, to be involved in these future novels.

Who says writing is a solitary profession?


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I don’t do research for any of my novels or stories.

A part of me, as I typed the above, felt a sense of guilt. It’s received wisdom these days – and, for all I know, always has been – that a fiction writers must assiduously research the background to their works in order to present a credible ‘world’ to their readers. After all, if you’re writing about a World War II fighter pilot, isn’t it wise to have read up on what it’s like to be a fighter pilot? And that goes for any other specialist profession or area of expertise, of course. To lend greater fidelity to one’s visions, research is essential.

Nevertheless, the idea of researching whatever I’m about to write fills me with foreboding, and often works to kill a project stone dead before it’s off the ground. In my early days as a writer I’d give in to this impulse and reads scads on whatever I was to write about – and the result was not, as I’d hoped, a work which embodied the epitome of a subject, a novel of which readers said, “Did you really trek from Kathmandu to Tibet, surviving a yak attack on the way…?” but an over-researched lump of stodge that was dead on the page and was bogged down with boring, factual info-dumps. You see, once you’ve done the research, it’s hard not to use it. (Try reading the novels of Arthur Hailey and Dennis Wheatley, if you don’t believe me.)

Over the years I’ve become so averse to doing any research that I think my subconscious filters out – at a very early stage – any nascent projects that might require research. So that what’s left, what rises to the surface of my consciousness, are projects which require no prior reading at all.

I’ve read loads of baloney about “Doing Your Research”, usually in writing manuals, or online – articles which encourage the beginning writer to research aspect of what they’re writing about. This is all very well if you’re writing a historical novel, but even so I’d much rather encourage a writer to concentrate on more important aspects of fiction than factual verity – psychological fidelity, say, and the importance of plot mechanics. For most novels research – if needed at all – is something that can be done when the important aspect of a book, the story and characterisation, are in the bag. Don’t put the cart before the horse.

Of course, when I’ve finished a couple of drafts of a novel, I’ll check a few facts. But the odd things is that I find, on looking back at the process of writing a book, that in many cases I’ve scored the red pen through these facts, having found that they’re not germane to the tale I’m telling.

Now… all the above is not to say that research is necessary in some cases, but I am saying that be careful not to over-research and laden your novel with indigestible wodges of fact.

I often wonder at my disinclination to do research, and I think it’s something to do with my aversion to what is perceived as ‘fact’. What matter to me are not facts, but the truth as perceived by me, the author, and by my characters. I harbour the desire to one day write a short story in which everything in the tale is ‘wrong’: the facts are wrong, the physics are wrong, the science is wrong, even the grammar is wrong  – but the whole adds up to a startling, shining truth.

I’ve been thinking about this on and off of the best part of thirty years, and I still haven’t worked out quite how I’ll achieve the feat.


This piece first appeared on the Rising Shadow website.



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The Literary Fantasy Bundle

All Covers Large

Keith Brooke writes:

When I first started talking with the fine people at StoryBundle about the possibility of putting together a bundle of books from writers associated with infinity plus we ran through a number of possible themes, but the one we kept returning to was Literary Fantasy. An elusive concept, perhaps – what marks ‘literary’ fantasy out from, simply, good fantasy, for starters? – but one that seemed to encompass the kind of books we wanted to offer: fantastical fiction with a sense of the magical and spiritual, written with a literary sensibility, by which we mean fiction with a love of language and an awareness of its place in the literary canon. As you’ll see from the books we’ve gathered together, that definition is deliberately elastic, inclusive rather than exclusive, yet still clear enough to form a coherence to the set as a whole.

One of the first titles that came to mind for me was Stephen Palmer’s Hairy London, a quite extraordinary picaresque romp across an Edwardian London transformed by an overnight growth of… hair. In the streets, across the rooftops and bridges, submerging the parks. Everywhere. This is literary fantasy crammed full with alternate-historical and cultural references, but also one that never loses sight of the need to entertain.

About as unlike Hairy London as it’s possible to get and still feature here, Kit Reed’s Little Sisters of the Apocalypse is a novel that treads the indistinct boundaries between fantasy, science fiction and realism, as befits an author who describes her work as ‘transgenred’. A hard-hitting and impassioned story of a colony of women whose men have gone away to war and the role a gang of biker nuns plays in confronting the women’s deepest fears.

The appearance of Little Sisters of the Apocalypse in this bundle marks its first – and so far exclusive – appearance in ebook format. John Grant’s The Far-Enough Window is another title making its first ebook appearance, exclusive to this bundle: a classic fairytale that both delights the reader and cleverly challenges the form, from a Hugo- and World Fantasy Award-winning author. The Ragthorn, by Garry Kilworth and the late Robert Holdstock won the World Fantasy Award back in 1992 but, inexplicably, until now has never been published in standalone form – another exclusive first edition for this bundle.

It seems invidious to single out particular titles here from a bundle that manages to be so diverse in theme and approach, so all that remains is to urge you to explore what’s on offer before choosing the price you want to pay for either the core bundle or the entire set. From classic fairytale, ghosts and a deal with the Devil, through strange alternative pasts and presents to those biker nuns, there’s a bit of everything. Call it literary fantasy, or simply good fantasy, or give up labels altogether and simply read on.

Keith Brooke is author of fourteen novels, six collections and over 70 short stories; he has also edited several anthologies and an academic book on science fiction. His work has been shortlisted for the Philip K Dick and Seiun awards, among others, and optioned for film. For ten years from 1997 he ran the web-based genre fiction showcase infinity plus (www.infinityplus.co.uk), featuring the work of around 100 top genre authors, including Michael Moorcock, Stephen Baxter, Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe, Vonda McIntyre and Jack Vance. Infinity plus relaunched in 2010 as an independent publishing imprint producing print and ebooks.

As always, StoryBundle lets you name your own price to get a whole bunch of epic and excellent titles. A purchase of $3 gets you the basic set of five books:

Spotted Lily by Anna Tambour

A Writer’s Life by Eric Brown

Lord of Stone by Keith Brooke

The Far-Enough Window by John Grant

In Springdale Town by Robert Freeman Wexler

Even better, if you pay $12 or higher, you unlock four more titles, which incldue:

The Ragthorn by Garry Kilworth and Robert Holdstock

Facade by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Hairy London by Stephen Palmer

Little Sisters of the Apocalypse by Kit Reed

The bundle is available for a very limited time only, via http://www.storybundle.com. It allows easy reading on computers, smartphones, and tablets as well as Kindle and other ereaders via file transfer, email, and other methods. You get multiple DRM-free formats (.epub and .mobi) for all books!

It’s also super easy to give the gift of reading with StoryBundle, thanks to our gift cards – which allow you to send someone a code that they can redeem for any future StoryBundle bundle – and timed delivery, which allows you to control exactly when your recipient will get the gift of StoryBundle.

Why StoryBundle? Here are just a few benefits StoryBundle provides.

Get quality reads: We’ve chosen works from excellent authors to bundle together in one convenient package.

Pay what you want (minimum $3): You decide how much these fantastic books are worth to you. If you can only spare a little, that’s fine! You’ll still get access to a batch of exceptional titles.

Support authors who support DRM-free books: StoryBundle is a platform for authors to get exposure for their works, both for the titles featured in the bundle and for the rest of their catalog. Supporting authors who let you read their books on any device you want—restriction free—will show everyone there’s nothing wrong with ditching DRM.

Give to worthy causes: Bundle buyers have a chance to donate a portion of their proceeds to charity. We’re currently featuring Mighty Writers and Girls Write Now.

Receive extra books: If you beat our bonus price, you’re getting nine total books!

StoryBundle was created to give a platform for independent authors to showcase their work, and a source of quality titles for thirsty readers. StoryBundle works with authors to create bundles of ebooks that can be purchased by readers at their desired price. Before starting StoryBundle, Founder Jason Chen covered technology and software as an editor for Gizmodo.com and Lifehacker.com.

For more information, visit our website at storybundle.com, Tweet us at @storybundle, Like us on Facebook, and Plus us on Google Plus. For press inquiries, please email press@storybundle.com



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Jani and the Great Pursuit… and Novel News

Jani and the Great Pursuit will now be published by Solaris in March 2016, not later this year as originally planned.

On the crime novel front, Severn House have just commissioned the third Langham and Dupré mystery entitled Murder At the Loch (Well, I am now living in Scotland). It will appear at some point in 2016.

Here’s a bit about it…

During the bitterly cold December of 1955 Donald Langham is asked by his friend, private detective Ralph Ryland, if he’d care to assist him on a case. Ryland has been contacted by their old commanding officer, Major Cartwright, who has reasons to believe that his life is under threat – indeed, someone has already tried to kill him. Cartwright owns a castle on a loch in Scotland, and has asked Ryland to come up and stay, although he has said little about the actual attempt on his life. Langham has fond memories of serving under Cartwright in Madagascar and India and is concerned by the Major’s predicament.

Donald discusses the request with his fiancée Maria Dupré, who, though reluctant for him to be away, acknowledges his concern for Cartwright and urges him to go. She cannot accompany him as she must hold the fort at the literary agency until her boss, Charles Elder, is released from jail in a few days’ time.

Langham accompanies Ryland by train to Inverness, then they hire a car for the last leg of the journey. When they arrive at the snow-bound castle, they find an interesting situation.

Major Cartwright is attempting to raise the wreck of a German plane which crashed into the loch in 1944. That summer he had assembled a team of engineers who constructed a pontoon on the loch, along with gantries and lifting equipment. However, recent bad weather has put a halt to the progress of the salvage, and Cartwright had dismissed all but one of the engineers.

But soon after Langham and Ryland arrive, one of the guests is dead…

Murder At the Loch combines the elements of a classic murder mystery whodunit with a tale of wartime intrigue, espionage and skulduggery, as it turns out that the crashed Nazi plane was carrying a cargo that various parties, with vested interests, would rather not have brought to light.

* * *

On the short story front, two short tales, “Reductio ad Absurdum” and “Running the Asylum” are out now at pennyshorts.com. “Beyond the Heliopause”, written with Keith Brooke, will appear later this year in Lightspeed. “Emotion Mobiles and Sally” is due out from Postscripts at some point, and “The Ice Garden” will appear in the anthology Improbable Botany edited by Gary Dalkin, probably next year.



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All Thanks to Agatha…

This piece first appeared in The Mystery Reader’s Journal, September 2014.

I read my first book at the age of fifteen. I was bored one summer, and when I complained of nothing to do my mother thrust a tattered paperback into my hands: Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table. That book changed my life.

I’d left school at fourteen when and I emigrated with my parents to Australia; to say that I was not academic would be an understatement. I had no interest in books, reading, or affairs of the mind. I was preoccupied in one thing: football.

However, Agatha Christie changed all that. From the first page I was hooked. I was drawn into the story, the mystery, of Christie’s complex, complicated whodunit. I finished the novel and immediately started reading it again from page one. For the first time in my life I’d been dragged into the mind of another person, privy to the thoughts and feelings of invented characters. Over the course of the next few months I devoured everything Christie had written. Soon after that, I decided to try my hand at writing a crime novel, and succeeded in producing three or four pages before setting them aside.

And then I discovered science fiction, initially the works of Robert Silverberg and H. G. Wells. I took up the pen again and began a series of very bad SF short stories – and then some very poor novels. This productivity, however, resulted fifteen years later in the publication of my first collection, The Time-Lapsed Man, and a year later my first novel, Meridian Days.

Thirty years after first reading Christie, and some fifty books later, I had the idea for a crime novel, and it felt like a homecoming, a return to my literary roots.

Murder by the Book, my first mystery novel, is set in London in 1955 and features the thriller writer Donald Langham and his sidekick literary agent Marie Dupré. Together they solve a series of murders wreaking havoc on the London literary scene. One by one, writers and editors are falling victim to a vicious killer, and Langham is next on the list…

One of the attractions of writing a mystery set in this milieu was that I could utilise my knowledge of the crime writing scene at the time, the incestuous world of writers, editors and agents all plying their trade in the booming market of ’50s London. Another attraction was that, after writing science fiction novels set in the future, I found that I had a greater literary freedom. I didn’t have to build the world from the ground up, or to describe things in as much detail. Readers would know of the world I was writing about because they lived in it from day to day.

I also found it liberating from a technical point of view: I had much more freedom to use metaphor and simile, literary devices which are often hard to use in SF. Have you ever wondered why you don’t come across many similes in SF literature? It’s because when a writer likens something to something else, the object he or she likens it to must be familiar to the reader. If that object is familiar, of this world and of this time, then the hapless writer immediately undercuts the sense of futurity he or she is attempting to maintain: “A spaceship like a cigar-case entered orbit around Saturn…” is a crass example.

I noticed that I had more leeway in the crime novel to invent eccentric characters, which don’t often appear in SF, for reasons that were not at first obvious to me. It’s allied to the above example of not undercutting the reader’s sense of futurity. Eccentric characters are only eccentric in relation to their environment, and as SF futures might be described as ‘eccentric’ in themselves, it makes the SF writer’s job of writing eccentric characters which are eccentric in relation to their settings very hard. These characters can only be ‘odd’ in relation to the setting the reader knows best – ergo, the here and now… which immediately undercuts that sense of futurity the writer is trying to maintain.

Of course, there are difficulties inherent in writing about the London of 1955, namely the research involved in getting the period detail right. I found that one way to go about this was to read newspapers of the time, and of course the Internet was an invaluable help. But, best of all, I gleaned vital information from novels set in the period. I read books set in the capital in the mid-fifties, the works of Graham Greene, Rupert Croft-Cooke and Robin Maugham being particularly helpful. Not only did they deal in the day to day ‘business’ of life at the time, but their rendition of how people spoke at the time came in useful.

My second crime novel, Murder at the Chase, published in 2014, is another mystery involving crime writers – in this case the impossible disappearance of a writer from his locked study, and the possible involvement of the satanist Vivian Stafford. It uses the usual tropes found in classic whodunits: the country house, a locked room conundrum, vicars and tea parties, as well as a murder or two – but, I like to think, concentrates on the characters and their motivations, and on the developing romance between Donald and Maria.

As to the future: I have further ideas for more Langham and Dupré mysteries, set in London and beyond, featuring the literary crowd of the time, skulduggery and even the occasional murder…







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