I saw this in Lydia Schoch’s weekly list of free books a while back, and I just had to give it a try. Look at that cover! How cool is that?

Well, as great as it is, the book is even better. It begins by telling the story of Lord Oisin, who fought to avenge the raiding of his town by a bandit known as Cumhil.

Fast forward a few centuries, to the 1780s, when a disillusioned British soldier returning from the war in America finds himself billeted in Cahir Mullach, the castle of Lord Oisin. And on All Hallows’ Eve, no less!

You all probably know that I love Halloween, but you may not know that I also love the American Revolutionary period and everything associated with it. The way Callahan portrays the British infantrymen here really grabbed me: Corporal Michael Snodgrass is a brave man, who witnessed many terrible things in a futile war against the rebelling colonists. Rather than the common American conception of British soldiers as sneering, inhuman, “imperial stormtroopers with muskets,” Snodgrass is depicted as a real person, with an essentially good heart turned bitter by the war, and suffering from what we in modern times would call PTSD.

The other characters are great too: from the kindly priest of the town of Baile, to the greedy, conniving landlord plotting to evict the town’s populace, to the mysterious old woman who, despite the Catholicism of the era, has not forgotten the pagan knowledge of older times.

How it all ties together, I won’t say, but it’s in the great old tradition of stories about spirits meting out justice for old wrongs. It’s true, after a certain point I knew where it was going, but that’s not a bad thing, because I enjoyed every minute of the ride. What I liked best was how the characters grew over the course of the story.

And the atmosphere! Did I mention it’s Halloween? In Ireland? It simply doesn’t get much more Halloween-y than a thick fog late at night, on some lonely trail, ghostly voices whispering in the dark, and then, suddenly, a castle, looming out of the mists!

I thought about waiting to review this book until October, but I couldn’t. It’s too good; I had to tell you all about it immediately. Buy it now, and save it for a chilly Autumn evening, and then let yourself be drawn into Callahan’s marvelous tale of the horrors of war, of ghostly vengeance, of Pagan mysteries and Christian charity, and most of all, of redemption and healing.

This book is… strange. I know, right? Frank Herbert, the guy who gave us the Dune universe, wrote a strange book? Who would have thought?

In some ways, of course, it’s more grounded in reality than Dune. It’s set on Earth, albeit at some point in the (then) future, when there is a war for oil being fought between Eastern and Western powers. There’s no spice, no sandworms, no telepathic witches, no psychedelic twists on Middle Eastern religions.

But this relative normality makes the remaining weirdness really, really weird. There are only four major characters, all of whom are members of a submarine crew on a mission to find a deep sea oil well while avoiding detection by the enemy. One of them is newly assigned, and his job is to analyze the psychology of the other crewmen.

Also, because of a sabotage incident early on, it’s clear to all four men that at least one of them is a spy. No one can completely trust anyone else, and at different points, each man does something that brings him under suspicion.

Add to this the intense psychological pressure of isolation deep underwater during an interminable war, and everyone begins to lose their minds to greater or lesser extents. Even the psychologist, steeped in Freudian and Jungian theory, begins to lose his grip on sanity. Or what he thinks of as sanity, anyway. For what the book ultimately asks is, what does sanity even mean in such an insane situation?

At the beginning of the book, I hated it. Herbert’s penchant for writing the characters thoughts in italicized bits of exposition, which will be familiar to readers of Dune, is out in force here, and it annoyed me at first. But gradually I got into the swing of it, and after a while, I was hooked. It turns slowly into a fascinating philosophical and psychological drama, and by the end, I felt like I had just read something every bit as thought-provoking as Dune, but way tighter and more concentrated.

There are some very memorable lines in this book. Like this:

“There are men all through the service–not just the subs–who are so sick of war–year after year after year after year of war–so sick of living with fear constantly that almost anything else is preferable. Death? He’s an old friend–a neighbor just beyond the bulkhead there.”

And this:

“Each of us is the enemy”–Bonnett’s voice grew firmer–“to the other and to himself. That’s what I mean: I’m the enemy within myself. Unless I master that enemy, I always lose.”

To be fair, there is also some semi-incomprehensible jargon:

“Johnny, do you feel hot enough on the remotes to snag our ballast hose in the fin prongs of one of our Con-5 fish?”

This book is very light on description. Herbert basically expects the reader to fill in a lot of the details for themselves. Which, I have to say, I liked. Not to say that I wasn’t confused at times about what was actually happening, because I was, but at the same time, I appreciated that Herbert was like, “Look, there’s a war on, and these guys are in a submarine. Use your imagination if you want to know what everything looked like!”

This book isn’t for everyone. Some people may find it boring or confusing or just too bizarre. But if you like intense psychological drama and meticulously crafted characters, you’re going to love it.

If you enjoy one or more entertainment franchises, this post isn’t for you. I don’t want to be a joyless scold; berating people for liking something. So if you are excited about the latest installment in such-and-such a series, good for you! Go have fun.

This post is meant rather for a specific group of people: namely, the people who were fans of various entertainment franchises, but who are now disappointed, upset, and perhaps even downright insulted by the latest installments.

On YouTube, for example, there is a whole genre of videos which can be described as “fans mad about [Franchise]”. Some of it is political, some of it is nostalgia-based, some of it is just people who are upset that what was once a simple, straightforward story has been turned into a confusing muddle of disjointed retcons, spinoffs, and callbacks.

I have seen this pattern over and over and over and over again. With virtually any entertainment property I can think of, it eventually emerges. Sometimes it happens fast. Sometimes it takes decades. But it always happens.

Think of a creative endeavor as a living organism. It begins as something small, often as an idea in the mind of one person or maybe a few people. They work to make their vision a reality. Doing so often requires collaboration with others. This is the growth phase, where the story is maturing, acquiring everything it needs to flourish.

Eventually, it blossoms into full flower, and if it has been nurtured well, it is a beautiful thing to see.

But then comes the other half of the cycle: decay. Decay does not mean it just goes away; indeed quite often the opposite. It grows even bigger, adding new elements and components unrelated to those originally envisioned by the creators. It becomes more complex, and complexity is another form of entropy. And entropy, dear reader, is the undefeated champion.

When you complain about what is happening to your favorite fictional universe, you are arguing against the laws of Nature.

This may strike you as absurd. “There’s no law of nature governing stories!” you might say. “An intellectual property is not a living being; why should we expect it to behave as such?”

It’s a fair question. My response is simply that it always does, even if there is no obvious reason why it should.

Once you interpret the life-cycle of a franchise this way, it really does clarify a lot of things. We could even, if we were feeling Spenglerian, categorize the life of our favorite franchises in terms of the Earth’s seasons: the fertility of Spring, the growing energy of Summer, the gradual slowing down and darkening of Autumn, and finally the eerie stillness of Winter.

Viewed this way, we also can begin to see that different people will like a franchise at different points in its life-cycle. The works produced in the Spring of the franchise’s existence will appeal to very different people than those produced in the Autumn. There is no reason to believe that either is morally superior to the other. They just have different preferences.

This brings us to the question of how a franchise dies. If we model it as an organism, we have to include some terminal stage where the thing is finally just over.

The people that this post is intended for will sometimes say their franchise has “died” when it produces something they don’t like. But this is not true. If new episodes are being turned out, then it’s not dead. Simple as.

A franchise is dead when people stop following it, watching it, engaging with it, and above all, paying for it. If no one claps, Tinkerbell dies.

If there is something different about the world today, it is that franchises are living longer. To illustrate: my parents’ favorite childhood books, films, and shows were distant memories by the time they were in their 30s. Whereas all my childhood favorites are still very much going concerns.

Perhaps there are too many vintage franchises. Indeed, one might argue that some of them need to pass on in order to make fertile ground for a new crop. There is only so much talent, creativity, and money available for entertainment; and when all of it is being directed to maintaining franchises in the late Autumn stage, there is none available for nourishing new ones into a healthy Spring.

If you agree with the statement above, then the way to fix the problem is not to complain about your favorite franchise. Trust me on this. I have walked this path. It doesn’t go where you think.

Complaining that you don’t like the direction of a given franchise is implicitly saying you are a fan of said franchise. You want to consume this content! You are begging the mega-corps to make the franchise appeal to you again. In other words, you are still held in thrall!

If you want to change things, it cannot be done through criticism or complaining. You will never harangue an existing series back into whatever you want it to be. No, what you must do is transcend it, by caring about other things. New things, the seeds of new generations of stories, that are not even franchises yet.

If all of the energy directed toward complaining about this or that well-established media property were instead focused on the discussion of new and innovative stories, that are not part of any established canon…

…Well, I don’t actually know what would happen, to be honest. But I can’t help thinking it would be a lot more pleasant than what we have now.

This is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. Williams perfects the formula used in Burke in the Land of Silver and Burke and the Bedouinthis time transporting his spy to France and later to Belgium, where he and his loyal friend William Brown take part in one of the most famous battles in European history.

The book opens with Burke and Brown infiltrating a Bonapartist plot to assassinate the Duke of Wellington, and from there sets them on the trail of a dangerous agent of the Corsican. As in previous books, Burke must make full use of his wits, his courage, and his uncanny knack for inhabiting a new identity so completely it nearly overtakes him.

Also as in previous books, Burke gets plenty of time to use his seductive charms, though this time around he finds a woman that he cannot control and, moreover, with whom he begins to fall in love, in a subplot that underscores the difficulty of finding a happy love life for a man in the service of His Majesty.

And then there’s the battle itself, which Williams describes vividly and dramatically. Honestly, it felt more immediate and exciting than watching the movie Waterloo. Williams somehow manages to make it suspenseful. I could almost forget the known historical facts, temporarily, and feel as uncertain of the outcome as any soldier on the field that day. “A damned nice thing,” indeed…

I’ve read books about, watched documentaries on, and seen dramatizations and reenactments of Waterloo. And I’ve always found it a little tough to follow. For a long time, I chalked this up to my own blockheadedness. But, reading this book, and especially the author’s afterword, I learned there is still much about the battle that is not well understood. Certain aspects are confusing and weird. Like Marshal Ney’s unsupported cavalry charge. What was that?

Oh, well. I imagine it was a confused nightmare of artillery fire, charging horses, and multiple loosely-coordinated armies. Under such circumstances, even first-hand observers could hardly be expected to remember clearly what they saw, or what they did. The one thing everyone seems to agree on was that the field in the aftermath of the battle was a horrific hellscape of carnage, noxious with the smell of the dead and the screams of the dying, and this book portrays that, as well as a hint of the soul-searching that the survivors must have gone through.

This is everything you could want out of historical fiction: a gripping story interwoven with enough details of life in the period to give you a little taste of what it would have been like to be there on that fateful day.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This book would make a great movie! It would be like Jurassic Park meets Aliens, with a bit of Predator thrown in. Instead of making endless sequels and prequels and reboots, the movie people ought to try adapting a lesser-known story like this one.

“Okay, Berthold; slow down,” you say. “What’s this book even about?”

Well, it’s set in the 23rd century, and tells the story of Nick Dekker, owner of the reigning champion women’s soccer team, the Los Angeles Hawks. Dekker sees an ad for an interplanetary safari, and decides it would be an excellent off-season activity for his team. Although Britt Jewel, the team’s coach and also Dekker’s girlfriend, is not excited about big-game hunting, he convinces her to go, and the rest of the team soon signs up as well.

Things start off well. The Regulus, the spaceship which transports them across the galaxy, is full of top-tier amenities, including a gym where Dekker spends most of his time fulfilling a promise to Jewel that he’ll get back in shape. It’s almost like a luxury cruise.

Except, not quite. Dekker is troubled early on by the presence of military personnel, most notably Capt. Luke Webb, a veteran of the Deep Space Infantry, who commands a unit of extremely lethal experimental combat robots. Dekker, a former space marine himself, begins to suspect this is something more than just a vacation.

His suspicions prove justified. Not long after landing on the first planet, they encounter a hostile species of intelligent aliens, soon dubbed the “Gorgon.” In response to the threat, Capt. Webb conscripts all the Hawks players into military service under his command.

What follows is textbook military sci-fi: plasma rifles, high-tech combat suits and the aforementioned combat robots get thrown into action against an alien army.  Of course, I loved it.

Moreover, though they’re both fighting the aliens, there’s some real tension between Dekker and Webb. Dekker distrusts the dictatorial officer’s motives, given his repeated withholding of important military intelligence from the rest of the group, while at the same time treating them as his own fighting force.

I do have some criticisms of the book. First, there’s a little too much exposition at the front. Now, I don’t mind a book that slowly builds up a world, and I hate the modern trend of having to start every story off with a bang. So, I don’t mind this too much, but some readers might find it slow going.

Second, I have a few problems with how the dialogue is written. It feels very stilted at times, like a bit too much explanatory matter for the reader has been included. Also, Dekker has this habit of telling everyone to call him by his first name, to the point that with every person he talks to, he seems to have a conversation like this:

“Hi, I’m Nick Dekker.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Dekker.”

“Please, call me Nick.”

“Okay, Nick.”

This got a bit repetitive after a while.

But, I enjoyed the story so much that I could readily overlook these issues. Like I said, I can easily imagine this being a movie, and it would be a really good movie. The problems with exposition would disappear, as that sort of material can be conveyed much faster with film. And, this book is the first entry in a series, so the movie folks can rest assured they have plenty of sequel material lined up already.

If you enjoy military sci-fi adventures, give this one a try.

Irene Iddesleigh is a novel about a woman who marries a wealthy aristocrat but whose marriage quickly collapses when he discovers her love for another man. He keeps her a prisoner in his estate, but she ultimately flees, leaving behind not only her estranged husband, but their son as well.

What makes this book, ah, distinctive, is the prose style. Here, for example, is the beginning of Chapter V:

Our hopes when elevated to that standard of ambition which demands unison may fall asunder like an ancient ruin. They are no longer fit for construction unless on an approved principle. They smoulder away like the ashes of burnt embers, and are cast outwardly from their confined abode, never more to be found where once they existed only as smouldering serpents of scorned pride.

What does this mean, you ask? Frankly, I have no idea. Let’s try some of the dialogue:

“The sole object of my visit, my dear Irene”—here Sir John clasped her tender hand in his—“tonight is to elicit from you a matter that lately has cast a shadowy gloom over my anticipated bright and cheerful future. I am not one of those mortals who takes offence at trifles, neither am I a man of hasty temper or words—quite the contrary, I assure you; but it has, fortunately or unfortunately, been probably a failing amongst my ancestors to court sensitiveness in its minutest detail, and, I must acknowledge, I stray not from any of them in this particular point.”

Not exactly spare, is it?

Okay, it’s time I told you the background on this book: it’s considered to be one of the worst novels of all time. Luminaries like Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis mocked it for its legendary badness. (Supposedly, Tolkien and Lewis’s group The Inklings would hold competitions to see how long it was possible to read from it without laughing.)

I admit, I find this all a little distasteful. Ros was a self-published author, whose husband financed the publication of her novel as an anniversary present. So, when I read that Twain, Tolkien, Lewis et al. mocked her work, it brings to mind the traditionally published authors who sneer at indie authors of today. Oh yes; I am very inclined to be sympathetic to Ros.

So is it really one of the worst books ever written? Or did successful literary men simply delight in kicking a humble woman while she was down?

One of the main charges leveled against Ros is her use of purple prose, and as the above passages demonstrate, there is solid evidence to convict her of this. I didn’t cherrypick the worst examples, either. The whole thing is like that. Here’s another one:

The thickest stroke of sadness can be effaced in an instant, and substituted with deeper traces of joy. The heart of honest ages, though blackened at times with domestic troubles, rejoices when those troubles are surmounted with blessings which proclaim future happiness.

You might say that sounds long-winded and pompous. Maybe it does. And yet, is it so different than this?

Men thin away to insignificance and oblivion quite as often by not making the most of good spirits when they have them as by lacking good spirits when they are indispensable. Gabriel lately, for the first time since his prostration by misfortune, had been independent in thought and vigorous in action to a marked extent — conditions which, powerless without an opportunity as an opportunity without them is barren, would have given him a sure lift upwards when the favourable conjunction should have occurred.

That is from Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, which is not regarded as one of the worst books ever written. Let’s try one more:

While I looked, I thought myself happy, and was surprised to find myself erelong weeping—and why? For the doom which had reft me from adhesion to my master: for him I was no more to see; for the desperate grief and fatal fury-—consequences of my departure—which might now, perhaps, be dragging him from the path of right, too far to leave hope of ultimate restoration thither. At this thought, I turned my face aside from the lovely sky of eve and lonely vale of Morton—I say lonely, for in that bend of it visible to me, there was no building apparent save the church and the parsonage, half-hid in trees; and, quite at the extremity, the roof of Vale-Hall, where the rich Mr. Oliver and his daughter lived.

That is from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which is one of the most beloved British novels in history. And yet, while this prose may not be exactly purple, it is at least a very suspicious shade of blue.

To be clear, I like both Jane Eyre and Far from the Madding Crowd. And even my well-known penchant for contrarian takes does not extend to arguing that Irene Iddesleigh is as good as either of them. It distinctly isn’t. But still, you can see similarities. These apples have fallen from the same tree, even if one is a bit misshapen and has these weird brown spots.

And what tree is that? The tree is Victorian Romanticism. Its roots are deep and its seeds are everywhere. While its fruit can be justly criticized for being overwrought and melodramatic, it is also really, really popular and enduring.

Virtually all Victorian prose, even the good stuff, seems excessively florid to the modern reader. Expectations of what writing should be were just different back then. If we condemn Irene Iddesleigh for being flabby and flowery, mustn’t we say the other Victorian novels exhibit many of the risk factors for same?

I think at least part of the reason for the extreme contempt leveled at Irene Iddesleigh is its publication date. It’s an 1860s novel published in 1897. The reaction against Victorian Romanticism was already underway, and as Paul Graham once observed, “There is nothing so unfashionable as the last, discarded fashion.” It was just the wrong time for that sort of thing.

Still, it is definitely not the worst book I’ve ever read. It’s not good, except strictly as an exercise in campy melodrama, but it’s actually more fun than some Serious Works Of Great Literature that I’ve read.

I’m pleased to report that Zachary Shatzer has done it again. The prolific master of zany comic stories has delivered what might just be his best book yet. This one is set in London and tells the story of the titular Percival Pettletwixt and his friends, as they seek to solve the mystery of his lost monocle.

Finding the missing eyepiece involves a hot air balloon battle, plenty of magic spells, a talking miniature ox, interdimensional travel, a man made entirely of cheese, and a series of books entitled Butler Detective, another addition to Shatzer’s growing library of books-within-books that I desperately want to read.

Why I say that this is Shatzer’s best book is that, in addition to delivering nonstop laugh-out-loud jokes, it also has developing character arcs, multiple plot threads that tie together nicely, and even a bit of a message to it, about the importance of friendship and valuing substantive qualities over merely superficial ones.

But mostly, what makes this book great is its humor. Maybe it was the London setting, or the cast that includes a great many well-meaning but somewhat daft aristocrats, but I found myself comparing it to works by P.G. Wodehouse. It’s that good.

Now, I want to say something more about this tale’s place in the modern literary world, but I’m concerned that doing so may, ah, “ruffle some feathers,” so I must choose my words carefully.

When I was a lad, there was a popular series of books involving magic and set in Britain. The first few books were entertaining and enjoyable; at least to a nine year-old, which is how old I was at the time. They were witty and fanciful adventure stories.

But, as time went on, it began taking itself too seriously, and grew from being a humble series of children’s books into that dreaded modern Megatherion of the entertainment landscape: the franchise. Somewhere down the line, its innocent charm disappeared, and it turned instead into an all-consuming phenomenon, spawning countless imitations, until at last it seemed as if every other story was about magic and set in Britain, and a reader wanted to throw up their hands in despair, crying, “No, no! Give me anything but a story about magical adventures in Britain!”

What does all this have to do with Percival Pettletwixt? Only this: that Shatzer’s delightful little comedy manages to be a story about magical adventures in Britain without being the least bit boring or tiresome. It’s fresh, fun, and an absolute joy to read. My only complaint is a handful of typos, and even that somehow only added to the book’s earnest sense of whimsicality, wholly free of self-seriousness or pretension. In short, it’s a jolly good show, old sport!

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Do I even need to tell you what this book is about? You can probably tell from the cover. That’s right, it’s about baseball. In particular, a minor league phenom named Joe Carpenter who quickly takes the sport by storm. The scout who discovers Joe, Bud Esterhaus, is a grizzled but likable veteran of the American pastime, who narrates the budding star’s meteoric rise from one league to the next, as the two of them pursue Joe’s ultimate dream of making it to “The Show”.

Of course, Joe has a secret that threatens to derail any hope of playing in the major leagues, and Bud has problems of his own–an ex-wife, an estranged son–that make their journey far from smooth.

I admit, I’ve never been much of a baseball fan. Fortunately, Brennan’s wonderful prose is so finely crafted that knowing anything about the sport is purely optional. The story moves along well, and the characters are interesting and likable. Especially Joe, who I was rooting for from the start.

This book also includes another Brennan staple: long and vividly-described road trips during which characters can explore their pasts. Like Fascination and Eternity Began Tomorrowthis is partially a road trip story, if only because the “here today, gone tomorrow” ethos of the minor leagues requires near-constant travel.

If you love baseball, you’ll love this book. If you don’t love baseball, you’ll still probably love it, simply because Brennan is a fantastic writer who knows how to spin a compelling yarn in any setting.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

I saw this book in Lydia Schoch’s weekly thread of free books a couple weeks ago, and it looked interesting. You all know the famous warning about judging and covers, but what can I say? This one caught my eye. I advise you to study it for a moment, and think about what kind of book you expect it to be.

The character on the cover is Philippa Roy, a successful politician who serves as U.S. Secretary of State from 2041 to 2045. The book is presented as her memoir of her time in office, which starts off fairly ordinarily enough, recounting her early political career, in which she makes combating climate change a major priority.

Her early successes raise her national profile, which leads to her appointment to the State Department. However, she soon learns a disturbing truth: the U.S. government has been concealing the existence of extraterrestrials, with whom they have been in contact ever since the famed Roswell Incident.

The President reveals this to her because alien technology is humanity’s last hope of reversing the effects of climate change. And so, Secretary Roy enters into tense negotiations with beings from another world, attempting to convince them to share their advanced technology.

Of course, she also still has to juggle various Earthly political rivalries, both in the form of domestic and global opponents. My favorite was her relationship with the Russian President, who, despite being a villain, was perhaps the most entertaining character in the story.

Also, as most of you know, I am fascinated by conspiracy theories, and Roswell / Area 51 is fertile ground for same. As an aficionado of classic Coast to Coast AM, back when Art Bell was the host, the parts of the story that concerned the government covering up their dealings with “our friends upstairs” gave me a warm, nostalgic glow. I loved every minute of Secretary Roy’s gradual uncovering of the clandestine operations of the “dark state”. (How cool of a term is that, by the way? I bet Mike Lofgren wishes he thought of it.)

This brings me at last to the “political” angle of the story. Just last week, I was tweeting about how much I prefer reviewing indie books to blogging about politics. But I guess I have to say a word or two about it here.

Some readers might disagree with Secretary Roy’s policies. Some may find them too left-wing. Others may find them not left-wing enough. Such are the joys of politics! My advice: don’t get hung up on details like this. Obviously, for the plot of the book to work, the main character needed to be a high-ranking official in the U.S. government, and to make that make sense, the author needed to give her a plausible political background and corresponding set of policies.

I myself did not agree with every one of Roy’s policies. But that did not detract from my enjoyment of the book one bit. While the author obviously put a lot of thought into making the political aspect of the book believable, it’s a science-fiction story in the tradition of Childhood’s End and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and should be treated as such. I highly recommend it to all sci-fi fans.

[Audio version of this post available below.]