Writer of fiction, poetry and essays.

The tagline for this book says it all: “Finally, a paranormal romance for people who hate paranormal romance.”

The simple way to describe this book is to say it’s a parody of Twilight. It’s got a vampire and a werewolf and the awkward girl who loves them, set at a high school in the Pacific Northwest.

Except it’s way more than that. There’s no doubt the book does get in a few good digs at the paranormal YA romance genre, but it’s also a very sweet story in its own right. Indeed, it’s such an authentic representation of what a high school populated by supernatural creatures would be like that it beats Twilight at its own game.

The book is very funny, but there are also elements of creepiness and even of melancholy that find their way into the story. This is a parody that becomes more than a parody, and takes on a life of its own, complete with interesting characters and a memorable setting.

No exaggeration: I felt more of a connection with The Usual Werewolves‘ Serena and her supernatural crushes than I ever did with Bella, Edward, or the rest of that crowd.

And Bertocci’s writing is something to behold. Again and again, what started out as a seemingly run-of-the-mill sentence would make a sharp turn in an unexpected direction, morphing into something surprising and funny. The author clearly knows how to turn a good phrase.

The best example of all is the descriptions of the music the werewolves listen to while cruising around late at night. There are numerous examples, but the best one comes near the end:

“A distinctive lick of piano sauntered into the air like it was far too cool for school, and they cheered as if God Himself had greeted them.”

I won’t say what song this is. But it’s by one of my favorite musicians, and with that hint, and especially in connection with the subject matter of this book, I bet you can guess what song it is.

If you’ve figured it out, or if you’ve just read the book and know the answer, listen to the opening of the song in question. Now, tell me that isn’t a perfect description? I’ve heard that song hundreds of times over the decades, but I could never have put it so perfectly.

The Usual Werewolves is an entertaining and surprisingly heartfelt take on the high school experience, told with a good-natured wit. I certainly can understand if, at the height of the Twilight craze, you swore that you would never read the “supernatural high school romance” genre. But if you made such a vow, it’s worth breaking for this book.

Sometimes you need a book you can just kick back and read without having to tax your imagination too much. After reading some heavy science fiction books, I needed a break. And this book was just the ticket.

The protagonist, Susan Hunter, is infuriated to learn the man she has been dating is married. Wanting to get away from it all and clear her head, she and her friend Darby take a vacation to Florida. At first, it’s a relaxing escape, but then Susan begins to suspect they are being stalked by a mysterious character with a striking resemblance to a young Marlon Brando. But who is he, and why is he after them?

This all probably sounds more intense than the book really is. While there are some dark elements, such as a murder, the overall vibe is really much lighter, as the cover suggests. The attractions of a Florida vacation are as much a part of the story as the crimes that come with any mystery story. This is a book you read to relax, not to get so caught up in the suspense and terror of it all that you start jumping at loud noises.

And let’s face it, sometimes we all could use a little opportunity to read a story that’s not too intense or too heavy on world-building or too saturated with omnipresent grimdark. I love post-apocalyptic stories, for example, but sometimes even I get apocalypse fatigue. At such times, I just want to read about a likable, somewhat quirky lady who gets caught up in a series of weird incidents, and needs to work with some of her friends to sort things out, often in the campiest way possible.

This book is a vacation in written form. And it’s free, so it’s a convenient way to take some time off, especially with today’s travel costs! Why not go ahead and treat yourself?

This is a dark paranormal thriller. I don’t want to say too much about the plot. Just think Rosemary’s Baby meets The X-Files. It tells the story of Moire Anders, a woman who finds herself waking up in the middle of the night in the park, with no memory of how she got there. Eventually, trying to figure out what is happening leads her to uncovering a sinister conspiracy, of which she is the primary target.

Anyone who enjoys a good, creepy mystery will probably like this. There are some pretty disturbing elements, which I can’t discuss too deeply without giving away plot elements, but if you’re accustomed to stories like those I mentioned above, you probably can guess what’s coming.

In other words, this is definitely a departure in tone from Painter’s other books, which tend to be light-hearted fantasies. It’s a significant enough difference that the ebook is only available via the author’s Payhip website, and not on other sites that recommend through algorithms. (A paperback version is available through Amazon.)

I understand this decision, from the author’s perspective. One doesn’t want readers who are used to magical comedies seeing a book by the same author and being unwittingly plunged into a world of sinister scientists conducting fiendish experiments on unsuspecting and unwilling people.

At the same time, though… this is something about the modern entertainment market that bothers me. It rewards taking the safe path, putting out similar stories again and again, rather than risk-taking. Painter has decided to boldly experiment in her fiction, but the market is against her.

Therefore, we will just have to adjust the market and change the incentives. So! If you like eerie, mysterious thrillers with some strong horror elements, and in particular if you enjoyed X-Files (or better yet, the old Coast-to-Coast AM radio show), give this a spin. A quirky comedy, it most certainly ain’t, but it’s a good, creepy story all the same.

Okay, okay; I know I’m really trying your patience at this point. Once again, I have failed to deliver the weekly book review. But I have an excuse! In addition to the three I mentioned last time, I have subsequently acquired another book to beta read!

Also, I have been writing reviews. Really, I have! But, the trouble is, they all have to be posted later in the year, to coincide with book release dates or certain Autumnal holidays. 🙂

All right, so if I have no book review to post, do I have anything useful to contribute? Well, not exactly. But I have a request that may prove fruitful.

Earlier this week, Kevin Brennan posted about the depressing lack of reviews for his books. I think it’s something almost all of us indie authors can relate to. Kevin is a fantastic writer, and to see his works languishing like this is disheartening. (If you want advice on where to start, I recommend his road trip comedy-drama Fascination.)

Nor is Kevin’s an isolated case. There are many wonderful indie writers whose books go un-reviewed.

I realize we’re all pressed for time these days. I mean, here I am, not posting a review when I should be. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” and this week anyway, I am part of the problem.

However, you don’t have to be part of the problem. So, tell me about what you’re reading or have recently read in the comments below. I am agog to learn! I therefore yield the floor to you, loyal reader.

This is a military action-thriller novella. It follows a young woman named Keira Frost who, after escaping from an abusive step-father and living homeless in Chicago, eventually joins the U.S. Army and applies to serve in an elite CIA unit.

Keira’s backstory is told gradually through flashbacks, interspersed with the main plot arc which follows her first mission with the unit and its overbearing leader, Ryan Drake, who seems to relish every opportunity to berate and belittle his team’s newest member.

The story itself is rather interesting, as the premise is that the team is on a mission into the Chernobyl site in Ukraine, in order to extract a spy planted among Ukrainian separatist forces, who is warning of a Russian plot to seize Eastern Ukraine. (This book was published in 2018.)

But, things are not quite what they seem. (They never are in thrillers, though, are they?) And what seemed to be a straightforward mission turns out to be anything but.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s a quick read and a pretty good story, although I suspect the ending will prove to be divisive. Some readers might not be able to suspend disbelief enough to accept the dénouement. Others may find it ingenious. I can see arguments for both.

All told, it’s nothing ground-breaking, but if you enjoy fast-paced military thrillers, this one will certainly fit the bill.

I must begin with an apology. There is no book review this week. This is not (solely) due to me being a lazy bum. I’m currently beta reading ARCs of books by three of my favorite authors. I am quite excited about this. But, since the books are not out yet, I can’t review them. (One of them will be coming fairly soon, though, so stay tuned…)

But, if I post nothing on the regular posting day, readers may be disappointed. Heck, you might even forget this blog exists if I go quiet too long. And who could blame you? I feel I owe you something for showing up here for the weekly Friday post.

So here goes: today, we’re going to talk about fashion.

No, not clothes! Sorry; I’m basically useless when it comes to discussing clothing fashions. If you want that, watch Karolina Zebrowska.

The fashions I want to talk about are less tangible. They are fashions in art, philosophy, literature, etc. I’ve written about this sort of thing before, in my posts about fin de siècle. Why did so much art in the 1890s share a common mood, and why was it different from the mood in, say, the 1820s, or the 1950s?

Actually, maybe fashion is the wrong word. There’s not really a word in English for what I mean. So we steal words from other languages, words like milieu and ethos and zeitgeist to convey the idea.

These concepts are describing something. But it’s hard to define exactly what “it” is. Indeed, “it” is usually the thing itself; a circular definition. The 1890s had a zeitgeist, an ethos. And so did the 1980s. And the two were completely different from each other, which makes them difficult to describe as the same thing.  As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said when discussing another phenomenon: “I know it when I see it.

My contention is that every era has this. Often, however, it is visible only in retrospect, or rather by comparing the spirit of one era with that of another, and seeing what’s different.

While it’s easy to see the spirit of other eras, it’s very difficult to see it in our own era. It strikes us as “just the way things are.” As Paul Graham once wrote, “It’s the nature of fashion to be invisible.” Or, bringing Karolina Zebrowska back into this again: “We are constantly shocked by the supposed stupidity of people who came before us, and at the same time impressed by how well-developed our society is. Except, well, as you probably guessed, neither is true.

When you watch a movie from the 1950s, the garish Technicolor is obvious. But when you watch a movie from the 2010s, the orange-and-blue palette isn’t… until you know to look for it, after which you wonder how you could have missed it.

Actually, I lied to you before. There is a word in English for this… sort of. It’s a neologism, but weren’t all words neologisms once?

The word is “meme.” Or maybe more precisely, the derived term, “memeplex.”

If you’re like me, when you hear the word “meme” you probably think of funny pictures of cats. But really, almost anything can be a meme. Broadly speaking, any concept that gets perpetuated among groups of people is a meme.

In fiction, we call common memes “tropes.” Stock characters like “The Evil Stepmother” or “The Hardboiled Detective,” for example, are memes.

A meme becomes a fashion when it starts appearing in a lot of places at the same time. The noir Hardboiled Detective meme seems to have been in fashion from the 1930s through the 1950s.

And obviously, some things go in and out of fashion. The youth fiction of a hundred years ago was mostly adventure and sci-fi. Now it’s dystopias and magic. Things come and go, be they shoes, literary archetypes, or cinema techniques.

Now, the question is: What makes a meme take off like wildfire? Or not?

The question is relevant to us because there are basically two ways to make it as a writer:

  1. Piggyback off the success of an existing literary memeplex
  2. Create your own literary memeplex

The distinction between the two is not clear-cut. H.P. Lovecraft is credited with creating a sub-genre of horror that now bears his name, yet he himself would admit he was influenced by Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany and many others in creating his fiction. Nothing is completely original. But some are more original than others.

Of course, I don’t have a perfect answer to the question. I do not know the exact formula, if one even exists. Alas, despite what you may have heard, there is no how-to guide to Create A New Cultural Phenomenon With This One Weird Trick!

But I have a theory. Or maybe it’s more of a wild guess. I have no proof that it’s right. I think it is, though.

My theory is that the key to creating a new literary memeplex is interaction with other creative people.

If you study pretty much any artistic movement, you find that the artists were influencing each other with their ideas. Sometimes as friends, sometimes as rivals, sometimes as fellow students of a craft. The point is, they weren’t just sitting by themselves trying to come up with new ideas in a vacuum.

My belief is that there is some critical mass of creative energy necessary to launch a meme with sufficient force that it can sweep through the general culture. Maybe there are some people who are such geniuses they can achieve this energy by themselves. But I think in most cases, it requires more than one brain working along similar lines.

This is why, if you’re bored of the current memeplexes, the best thing you can do is try to work on new ones. If there’s one thing I know about fashions, it’s that they don’t go away because people get sick of them. Rather, people get sick of them because they discover something new.

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.]